Higher Education after the Pandemic: Shaping the expectations

While I am, like everyone else, weighed down by sadness of the human tragedy of the pandemic, it is clear that we know how to end the pandemic. Vaccines are working, testing has become more accessible and there is a treatment around the corner. From now, it is a question of political will and logistics, and not an intractable battle with nature (as is the case with AIDS, for example). Therefore, the horrific scenes on television notwithstanding, it is worth thinking the post-Pandemic world.

If history is any guide - and it usually is a reliable guide - this worldwide disruption should set off a new 'golden age'. Pessimism, at the end of such disasters, usually turn to optimism. Who would have imagined that the daily commute to office can ever be something to look forward to? Therefore, getting back to normal with a vengence is indeed a distinct possibility. Such a scenario has already been factored into the expectations, in stock markets, house prices, in all those loans given out to keep the companies afloat. 

However, there is another school of thought, and as long as the pandemic lasts, they are getting much of the airtime. This is the digital apocalpyse party, people who think that the old ways of doing things are essentially dead. In a world equally infected by Covid19 and Zoom call, they think that the latter will outlast the former. They are saying that the old ways of doing things is dead, though they are just using an old way of thinking - that it is either one or the other. 

In Higher Education, this is deja vú all over again. The online versus face-to-face is an old binary in Higher Education. The online side, after a lifetime of neglect, is suddenly out in the Sun and they are hoping to keep things forever like this. But, despite the enthusiasm, it is also apparent that this pandemic has exposed, in equal measure, the limitations of online delivery. It has been normalised into the academic psyche, and a forced learning curve means that now a lot more people are using the available tools better. But, equally, just as the worker productivity has dropped in businesses, most students and tutors have taken this as an aberration and forced alternative, and the student experience has been generally poor. In spite of the pandemic, the campus universities in many countries have had record enrolments and even in the absence of global student mobility, have done exceedingly well. One may get excited by Edtech start-up valuations, but we must keep in mind that most campus-based colleges are neither start-ups nor playing the valuation game. 

So Campus is not dying like the High Street, because it has a different function. It is easy to get this mixed up with retail, and those who thought campuses are nothing but degree superstores make the mistake easily. But those who have ever taught once in life would recognise that their workplaces are more similar to hospitals than shopping malls: No one is perhaps arguing that we will need less hospitals once the pandemic is over.

But, equally, for all those waiting for this pandemic to pass over, it is important to remember that the online genie is out of the bottle now. No one would want to go back to the world that existed before the pandemic, when some professors decided not to use a Learning Management System out of cyberphobia. The possibilities opened up by online delivery - that one can indeed get the best experts based in different locations to teach something without the cost and inconvenience of travel - have opened many eyes. It will be foolish to give up these gains when we get back to campus.

In summary, then, one of the false binaries in Higher Ed - online vs face-to-face - has been resolved. But let's be clear - future is not 'blended', just like before. That b-word meant education is driven by content, textbooks, videos etc., and a combination of media should be used to deliver the content. This pandemic and forced isolation have shown us that education is much more than just content, and this whole debate between online-vs-offline, centering around content delivery, needs to move on. The social aspect of learning, the interaction between the technology platform and the user (Lecturer, Students and Administrators) and the combination of roles between global lecturers and local support will now get far more attention than it did previously.

Therefore, I am hoping that the pandemic, when it recedes, will eventually give us a new frame of reference. We don't have to do the old debates again and paradigm will shift. We would recognise that oneline-or-offline was the wrong debate to have in the first place. Our focus will shift to what matters - collaboration - between human and the machine, between global and local and indeed between different users themselves.

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