The future of higher education that isn't


Future becomes obsolete, but it happens at a uneven pace. 

A wise man once said that in history, 'in years, weeks happen, and then in weeks, years happen'. But, the same wise man - Lenin, as it happened to be - thought he could see the future and shape it. As it turned out, the future didn't behave.

This should serve as a cautionary tale for today's Gurus, confidently peering into the future. Our ideas and our expectations, shaped by the slow years, proved completely inadequate now. And, besides, the prediction business does real harm: If the predictions become forceful enough (or are forced on others, as in Russia), it makes us run in directions we shouldn't and makes us ignore stuff that we should be paying attention to.

What's happening right now in Higher Education is a clear, time-compressed example of ideas (and predictions) out of sync with reality. Only six months ago we thought the future of Higher Ed was digital. Six months on, there are only a few true believers left who still think that way.

For the rest of us, claims about online education failed the road test. For a whole generation of students, learning online, with its grim solitary reality, unprepared teachers, unsuitable curriculum and faltering bandwidth, would forever be associated with a very forgettable period of their lives. More than that, it has shown that the real challenges in higher education are elsewhere. More than classroom versus online, the unsuitability of curriculum, the inequality in access to information, the variability of the learning facilities (learning on a phone is not the same as learning on a laptop which is not equal to learning on a desktop in your own room) are issues that demanded - and were denied - our attention. The sudden freeze of recruitment broke the implicit promises that sold the degrees; the enforced idleness brought out the challenges of pastoral care.

My point is that the conference talk about the future of Higher Ed misses a lot. It's easy to get excited about artificial intelligence doing everything, or all students staying at home or learning from anywhere. But thinking of future of higher education solely in these terms is misdirected. It's counter-productive not just because they allow us to take our eyes off other priorities, but also - crucially - because they create wrong priorities for even our technology development and deployment. 

Here are my examples of misdirected priorities:

1. If anything, C19 has shown the need of humanising learning technology, but because old habits die hard, we have pinned our hopes on AI delivering us a better educational experience. I have met people who hoped that AI would make bad lectures good. 

2. While the experience should have highlighted the exclusionary aspects of online learning, there was little talk of inclusivity. Instead, the excitement was directed at building better tech solutions which demand greater processor capacity, memory and bandwidth. It's the cars-before-roads problem, all over again.

3. Little has been done on the issue of distractibility during online learning. Moving the learning online meant putting up a class in the middle of the 21st century of an oriental bazaar, with multiple platforms vying for the learners attention. Anyone who taught in a class with students glued to their mobile phones would recognise the problem of trying to teach students through their very devices, but the technologists completely missed the point that education requires attention.

Innovation in education does not mean talking about cool technologies. I do education technology for a living, so I recognise the temptation to sell snake oil. It's really profitable to put the cart before the horse but we can only go backwards from there. And, besides, all we are doing is avoiding important conversations. In more than one way, C19 may be a setback for EdTech: We were only getting started about deploying EdTech where it enhances the experience and makes the learning more meaningful. Negotiating, one heart at a time, the institutional bureaucracies was painful, but, with hindsight, it was preferable to being crowded out by infantile technophilia.

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