Is the current crisis a watershed moment for education?

For the past weeks there have been daily reports of universities putting all their coursework material online.

One report stated teachers at a large (named) university “are being given crash courses in online teaching.” A senior academic at another substantial university has posted material for his colleagues, amounting to a Beginner’s Guide, with reassuring messages not to be frightened of teaching online.

No one can criticise this because the immediate interests of students are paramount.

But the general public, many of whom have had to learn fundamentally new ways of working, might reasonably wonder what universities have been up to since that Internet-thingie arrived.

A choice is coming – not yet but it’s coming – whether to revert back to old ways when the crisis is over or use this as a watershed moment for transformative change in higher education. We could look forward to reconstruction, not return, in four areas.

The first is the passive lecture, which is still the modal way of content transmission and less effective for learning than the alternatives now available. Many students stop attending after the first week, they watch it at home at 1.5 times speed (probably with other screens open), and the 50 minute format is much longer than all the scientific evidence on attention span.

The lecture made some sense, economically and socially, when students were not expected to engage actively with the content. But it is a relatively recent format, and it could be retired.

In the 18th Century, Dr Samual Johnson, according to his biographer Boswell, declaimed its arrival:

“People have now-a-days got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shewn. You may teach chemistry by lectures:– You might teach the making of shoes by lectures!”

Let 2020 mark the death of the dull lecture.

The second area of focus should be diversifying international student markets. Everyone has known about the degree of reliance on a small number of countries. The obvious reason it all got stuck is that fees are too high. The middle classes of most countries are priced out of Australia. Universities charge what their market will bear, and China has the most means and willingness to sacrifice.

Let 2020 be the year Australia welcomed countries at different stages of economic development, and prided itself on affordability.

The third area of focus is cost. Education is too expensive. As other sectors have transformed their operations, moved to new work practices, stopped building iconic structures (on their own balance sheet), the change in universities has been marginal. Non-academic cost could be brought down significantly with decisive leadership and experience from other parts of the economy. Governments would be impressed, domestic students could be saddled with less debt, and international students would show their gratitude in later life for lower fees.

Let 2020 be the year that Australian universities seriously transformed the way they operate and stopped tiptoeing around obsolete ways of doing things.

Finally, student experience. There is a lot happening around the sector, to map student journeys and improve service, but universities are a long way away from the customer experience (CX) that other sectors have had to develop to survive. The technique of personas or archetypes is used in recruitment, to target particular kinds of prospective students, but it could be extended throughout the learning period. With a clear handle on different types of students, who have different needs and abilities, teaching and academic support could be tailored specifically for their learning, rather than one-size-fits all.

Let 2020 be the year when CX meets SX.

Now may not be the right time to lose focus on the immediate needs of students and staff, but there must be enough bandwidth to make a simple resolution.

We shall not go back to the status quo ante virus.

This article first appeared in The Australian.


3 thoughts on “Is the current crisis a watershed moment for education?

  1. A large problem in universities is the low quality of a lot of teaching. There are specialists housed in faculties, but how many of them can inspire rather than intimidate and how many have little idea of how learning occurs except through their own unfortunate experiences of being lectured to and punished or ridiculed. Stephen is right about his points on the misguided focus and missed opportunities by Universities. My question is how many academics have no idea how to inspire a love of lifelong learning and curiosity, a zest for discovery and innovation – and not regurgitation? It’s also unfortunate that many universities have for advancement (making it to Professor) purposes weighted research funding and publication far above quality of teaching.

  2. Perhaps there needs to also be a reminder of what university is, it’s a place where you should be getting input from people who write the “books” not just teach from them. It’s the place where innovation, new concepts and practices and the “front of the curve” should come from. Not just another version of high school. It requires investments in research and scholarship – in “industry” engagement. Current university teaching is crushed by red tap and suffocating accreditation processes. The teaching research nexus has been chocked by the lack of investment in research funding. If we value education we need to value what a university education is and not throw the baby out with the bath water. The reason the system has been broken isn’t just because things aren’t online.

  3. I completely agree with this. There are a lot of projections that, education system will go through a massive paradigm shift in many dimensions: online lectures might gain more prominence over in-person lectures in school; students will be more self reliant and refer books & collaboration network for shared learning; education might gain more focus in general and not just be an option for youngsters; cost of education might also be slashed down (as more content moving online).

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