The age of monsters? How the COVID-19 crisis failed to reshape higher education

Back in the spring of 2020, in the midst of the first brutal wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, universities were forced to effectively rethink their entire practice of learning and teaching provision. The hard core of the traditional lecture-seminar model hinged on the simultaneous presence of students and teachers in enclosed university spaces. They followed rigidly bounded weekly routines of synchronous onsite ‘contact hours’ and tried-and-tested customs of assessment that reproduced the same formula of essay and end-of-year examination. Change had been on the horizon for some time, facilitated by the advent of digital infrastructures and technologies, as well as moderate experiments with new forms of both short- and long-form written work. Yet strikingly the basic premise of the totemic ‘student journey’ had remained the same: ten or twelve weeks of regular contact with the teacher bled into grotesque and nonsensical multiples of ‘independent learning’ (a euphemism for poorly-scripted and overwhelmingly unguided learning experiments that were not far off the process of constructing elaborate bookcases from flat-packed boxes with the help of poorly illustrated instructions) and finally DIY essays and hand-written exam scripts. With the exception of emails (a technology developed half a century ago), noisy in-class projectors, unsightly ‘virtual learning environments’, and the disappearance of paper submissions (a decision driven more by cost-cutting than innovation), the students of medieval Sorbonne would have felt eerily at home in the 21st-century global university institution.

I am writing these lines as a ‘mid-career’ academic but I can still remember my amazement with the fact that, back in prehistoric 2000, my university politely rejected my module proposal on the basis that a written exam was an indispensable — read non-negotiable — component of learning for my discipline. Since then, little by little, this taboo has been broken to an extent (with ‘take-home’ exams and a steadily increasing subset of coursework-only module assessments). Yet onsite exams, still branded as an essential ‘skill’ that needs to be firmly embedded in the course curriculum, continue to use the same rationale, routine, and physical apparatus. Meanwhile timetabled classroom ‘lectures’ remain the kind of one-way performance that they had been for centuries. Blackboards were replaced by whiteboards, then by acetates, then by overwrought powerpoint slides, and then by flashy animated iterations of, well, ‘powerpoint-style’ slides. Novelty now hinges on the fabled ‘seminar’ — a fascinatingly but also mysteriously empty container of a ‘learning experience’ that has to be one or two hours, that has to occur every week and for ten/twelve weeks in uninterrupted, monotonous iteration that oftentimes presents learners and teachers with a crushing horror vacui to be filled with presentations, groupwork, and other ill-thought fragments of learning scraped from the bottom of the old barrel.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a total shock to the system because it struck down the hard-wired foundational assumption that higher education can only mean a diet of strictly timetabled co-presence in university premises and DIY ‘independent’ learning. In a wink, at some point in March 2020 classrooms and corridors fell silent, just like our towns and cities. It was frightening and disorienting because it happened so quickly and absolutely. To their credit university institutions, students, and their teachers adopted swiftly new routines and made a virtue of sorts out of necessity. ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’. Zoom(TM) became the new quotidian Google — a teaching room, a conference hall, an office, a social hub, invading every minute of our waking lives. We became fluent admirably quickly in digitalspeak — previously arcane terms such as synchronous and asynchronous, live event, team and channel, blurring backgrounds, sharing desktops and windows — became our new routines. Against all odds (but not surprisingly since, if anything, history has shown again and again how adaptable human beings can be when faced with existential adversity) continuity was ensured. Lectures went online, mutating into horrendously overlong mp4 video clips. Seminars became ‘synchronous live events’, discussion forums, town hall meetings, Q&A sessions. Presentations morphed into short films or podcasts. Exams were now prefixed by ‘take-home’. Essays remained, well, essays. Boxes ticked. Conversion completed. Job done.

All along universities have hoped for the legendary ‘back to normal’. It is an understandable wish, not least because it is embedded as a hard assumption in their entire business model. Students and teachers too have expressed ennui with Zoom rooms, video recordings, muted and invisible participants, and above all the lack of personal contact. Who needs online learning after all if you can do the same in campus? Statistics about falling student engagement with online teaching and asynchronous learning have served as justifications for treating the COVID-19 lockdown period as a below-par, second-best experiment that ought to be wound down sooner rather than later. The fiery apostles of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ predicted that the sooner the halcyon days of classroom lectures and seminars are back the better for the quality of education that universities offer to students.

They are wrong. They set up a straw man (online learning done hastily in the wake of the COVID-19 emergency) to inject life into the steadily decaying retrotopia of the nineteenth-century university that miraculously survived, with a bit of technological and digital dusting, into the twentieth and then twenty-first century. Crises are horrific, especially when they happen so suddenly and involve such a total threat to life, natural and social and cultural. But crises have always liberated thinking in order to catalyse new ways out of a cul-de-sac. This did happen in the aftermath of the first lockdown; and some of the know-how acquired during this period of trial and error will most likely survive the pandemic one way or another. All along, however, most people thought of a temporary fix enough to hold the fort until the armies of normality came to the rescue. Tinkering with the medium without questioning its relation to the message or pausing to think about the rationale behind the process and its objectives is the hallmark of mediocrity, of lack of imagination, in the end of lazy short-termism.

Now imagine an alternative future. The lockdown caused by COVID-19 exposed the farcical outdatedness of the ways in which universities have been using the otherwise important physical co-presence aspect of education and learning. Long-standing orthodoxies about the supposed superiority of the lecture-seminar model, the menu of semester-long modules, and the claimed importance of blanket independent learning started to crumble. What on earth are students supposed to do with the stultifying ‘contact hours’ (where, conventional logic dictates, the more the better no matter what is being offered and how it informs learning)? And what have universities been doing to inject coherence, logic, and structure to the long intervals of ‘independent study’ — to make it work for the students and enhance the student experience in the classroom events? No, there is precious little in all this routine that is constructive, productive or aspirational to justify even a modicum of wishing to ‘go back to normal’. Rather than trying to hold imaginary bastions of excellence until normality returns, pause and think: how much of what we have been doing has caught up with the world in which we all live? Do we need hour-long lectures? Do we need them every week, for a whole semester? Do we need seminars every week — but only for sixty minutes, rain or shine? Do we point the finger of blame in the direction of students for ‘not engaging’ with our maladroit online video misproductions and poorly presented handout documents or hideous VLEs? Do we expect them and their teachers to be or become digital wizzards when no digital strategy worthy of its name has ever been consistently and comprehensively promoted by universities beyond rhetorical declarations in strategy documents and promotional materials? Do we expect teaching rooms with no cameras and microphones to be anything other than total disaster zones for ‘hybrid’ online/onsite delivery? Do we expect teachers and students who juggle multiple modules per semester and are forced to dip in and out of very different content, cohorts, digital communities and so on to become experts in time management and pull off the impossible feat of self-managing engagement at rigid intervals with four or five different topics, tutors, learning routines, deadlines and tasks? No. No. No.

Universities dropped the ball the moment they decided that COVID-19 would be but a blip in the midst of gilded continuity. With the first rays of improvement in the summer and early autumn they forced on students and their tutors a nonsensical diet of an unseemly, poorly conceived ‘hybrid’ curriculum — a bit of online and a bit of onsite and a bit of both and nothing as students starting self-isolating. It was nonsensical not because it was pedagogically wrong but because it was done without any preparation or pedagogical sensitivity or infrastructural support. The result was that these ‘hybrid’, socially-distant ‘contact hours’ were an unqualified and unpardonable disaster — the worst of both worlds. Teachers too fell into the trap of seeking to translate verbatim their past routines and materials into ‘digital’ formats and modes of delivery.

Errare humanum est, especially when the formidable task of change is thrown at people with no notice or time to pause and think. But this was March 2020. A year later such excuses are wearing embarrassingly thin and good will has run dry. But no — the government is thinking that it may be a great idea to drag students back into the mothballed university classrooms even if the semester has effectively finished and the students will need to go back home shortly afterwards because, hey, all end-of-year exams have been converted into online equivalents. Forget epidemiological common sense for a moment: how on earth could that hasty add-on be seen as pedagogically defensible, let alone brandished as ‘value-added’? The only sensible assumption about this rationale is that is serves the standard university business model. Fair enough — but please save us from the virtue signalling about supposedly catering for the ‘student experience’.

Online or hybrid education is not about faithfully translating the traditional lecture-seminar-assessment curriculum into a digital one without questioning its premise, structure, rhythm, and delivery formats. The online-only experiment that punctuated most of the last twelve months has indeed failed in its current form. This however in no way vindicates the antediluvian assumptions and routines that universities have been relying for so long. To paraphrase the oft-quoted these days Gramscian dictum, because the ‘new cannot be born yet’ does not mean that the old is not dying a prolonged and horrible death. As the summer approaches and we are hopefully looking forward to a world in which COVID-19 no longer determines every aspect of our everyday lives, let us pause and think bravely not how we can ‘go back’ but where we really want to go from here. Turn the page and start plotting a new curriculum, bit by bit, assuming very little, with a healthy dose of well-informed and creative defiance of gilded convention. Then plan how digital infrastructures and tools can empower it. Along the way bury the cadavers of ‘contact hours’ and ‘independent study’, classroom exams, rigid lecture-seminar formulas, and so on. Think of that precious, beautiful resource of physical co-presence and make the most of it, use it in new student-led, curiosity-driven, community-building ways. Think of that powerful arsenal of digital tools and plot them – thoughtfully and creatively – along the route of very different student journeys, where ‘independent study’ becomes redundant, banished Newspeak and gives way to a kind of continuous learning that is always independent and structured, student-driven and incremental and cumulative, with a productive and self-sustaining rhythm replacing the stop-start model of weekly classroom contact.

‘Hybrid’ learning is very much an integral part of any conceivable post-COVID new normal. It does not need to be a slapdash zero-sum fix, even less so a cost-cutting amateur alchemy. Done properly, freed from the absurd expectation that it can magically reproduce and replace the old routines without pedagogical rethinking of the underlying lecture-seminar premise or the technological know-how and infrastructure to make it work, digital learning can be nothing short of transformational. It can also liberate the physical classroom from the crushing, unedifying monotony of stale lectures and awkward weekly seminar rations. Good digital teaching and learning also means infinitely better classroom experience for students, where time together is used to its real strengths – guiding student curiosity, offering bespoke learning support and a very different kind of flexible, productive contact time. We can do both onsite and online better in thoughtful alignment.

With a bit of good (vaccine) fortune, the monsters that crept up in our semi-virtual universities in 2020 can be unceremoniously locked away in the cabinet of curiosities that COVID-19 littered our lives with. But in 2021 and beyond we owe it to ourselves to fail better than falling back on worshipping the false idols of 2019. Boasting about the merits of a ‘return to normality’ has rarely sounded as hollow and sloppy as it does in the context of digital learning. Above all it will be an insult to a year’s hard work, inventiveness, exploration, and discovery by so many, both in front of digital screens and in the engine rooms of technological infrastructure.

Academic, digital enthusiast, traveller, nomad

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