Online higher ed: new questions

As higher ed goes online, we must remember: The medium is the message.

There is little point trying to do online what we do in campuses. This is what most online higher ed propositions are built on, and very quickly they become poor copies of the real thing. The screen reduces the whole web of personal interactions and relationships into just content delivery - and universities to diploma shops! It is not surprising that the students do not see the same value in online delivery as they do in the classrooms.

But that format also underplays the key strengths that a distributed environment can bring. Flexibility in terms of time and space, for example, may not be that valuable if we are trying to replicate the same activities that happen in a classroom, but mightily important if we try to do what can't be done in a classroom. But there is more: This is not just about access but experience too. There was once a charm getting to know others across the barriers of time and space. Facebook and WhatsApp took away the difficulties and the magic with it, but it is still hard to find safe spaces to connect with people with similar interests and aspirations or stage of life. All these a carefully crafted online learning experience can bring to play (my favourite example is Duolingo).

There is no dearth of conversation about changing the world in the online higher ed circle. But as I heard Geoff Hinton to quote once: The universities can change history but can't change their history course! The online disruptors want to change the world, of course, but they have a fixed model of higher education - content-driven, built around courses, leading to a diploma, time-bound - as a given. As Covid brought all the assumptions out in the open, it was obvious: While we are tinkering with the medium, we are not getting the message.

In this environment, it is hard to keep faith on the tech chatter but there are some interesting ideas that are worth considering. Does online higher ed present a unique opportunity to unbundle qualifications? Can we break the fixed structures of Bachelor's and Master's degrees, formats whose original intent and purpose are now completely lost, and come up with something which will still be acceptable to the wider world? Would online higher ed allow fringe experiments in education - degrees by negotiated learning, for example - to become more acceptable? Would content be replaced by experience and performance as the core of higher education? Can there be a shift to real global education, through which the national bubbles can be broken and a new era of global systems thinking can emerge? 

In summary, we need to think beyond the innovations in distribution to rethinking what higher education is and should be. That is a far more difficult conceptual leap than imagining robotic teachers (we all know those, don't we) or an insight about how a student may perform in the workplace. It is difficult not to take the university for granted, given their ubiquity at the present time. But the habit of equating higher learning with university education is already being questioned and we seem to be going back to that seventeenth century moment when the universities lost their lustre and had to be reinvented at Halle and Göttingen. That was driven by another technology - print - and another cultural phenomena - enlightenment. In many ways, we are at a similar civilisational moment, pregnant with possibilities and yet confronted by serious conceptual and ethical challenges: Reinvention of content and engagement, redefinition of education and attainment and rethinking the 'town-and-gown' relationship are surely in order.





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