How COVID-19 Will Change Higher Education for the Better (If They Let It)

change higher education

In 1995, I was a graduate student in English, writing a thesis about Henry V. I was also completely enamored of the capital-I-Internet, then in its academic toddlerhood. The ease of transferring information and knowledge was enthralling.

There were no SEO algorithms yet. There were just people communicating and posting their research and writings, adding them to directories, and others, everywhere, could read them. We were chatting in MUDs and MOOs! We were linking to each other for fun, not for Google purposes! I wrote my thesis as a website, or, to use the term then, a “hypertext.” Oooooo. I added it to the newly-created English department server, and it was magical. It even ended up as a link on a well-known and respected static website directory known as the Voice of the Shuttle. That achievement still ranks high on my favorites list. (I’m not saying it was good, I’m saying I knew how to network.)

The important bit to all this reminiscing? I had to write a defense and an explanation of why I wanted to do an internet-based thesis. One professor said it was a game and that it watered down my scholarship, making me look unacademic and trivial. Another wouldn’t read it online and forced me to print it out. Print out… webpages. I had to give him a stack of paper with “flip to this page next” on sticky notes. It was only with the support of a few ahead-of-their-time professors that it was accepted and passed. It was the third online thesis at a rather large public university that prides itself on “inventing the future.”

Now, 25 years later, we are at another defensive crossroads in higher education. And like the introduction of the internet, and professors being forced to accept its arrival, colleges and universities are now having to grapple with the permanence of remote learning and virtual education. It’s not going away. It’s time to change higher education, permanently.

Remote Learning is Permanent

When in-person classes rapidly shifted to online classes in the spring of 2020, it was a band-aid. It had to happen, and the fitting of in-person instruction round pegs into online dissemination square holes was disappointing and frustrating. “It’s just for now,” everyone said. “It’s just for emergency purposes!”

This line was uttered with their fingers crossed behind their backs.

And now we’ve started another semester, and classes are still, unfortunately, online. There’s no question that the show has to go on, but the students aren’t going to continue to accept, nor pay for, the round-peg-square-hole facsimile of an in-person class just held via Zoom for much longer.

This change isn’t an either/or choice. It’s a both/and. And it’s time to invest in technologies suited for online learning on various platforms, and develop and train our professors in new tools and methods. Online learning doesn’t have to be a game or a lesser-than. It can be what it’s supposed to be, and things we haven’t even imagined yet. We can change higher education into whatever we want it to be.

The Painful Restructuring Has Started

Matthew Yglesias writes at Vox that professors and universities who are embracing the technologies now will be able to “create something that will have enduring value for years to come.”

The pandemic, says Kevin Carey, the director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, is hastening what he thinks is the long-term trend: “the integration of technology into the planning, design, and implementation of college in a way that’s so taken for granted and ingrained that the distinction between in-person and online really starts to collapse altogether.”

How forcing colleges to go online could change higher education for the better

There’s also going to be a painful restructuring of tuition and fees for universities. Students who aren’t on campus don’t want to pay for the gym, of course. However, universities budget for an in-person world. The same facilities and on-campus experiences that may or may not have been in the schedule of fees need to be paid for somehow. And as such, those reckonings are going to happen too. Ryan Craig calls it “The Great Unbundling.”

But what about labs, I hear people say all the time. Me or my student would be fine online, but there are labs and studios to participate in. What if those labs and studios were remote, in a way, as well? Maybe schools and community colleges reserved spaces for labs that worked in conjunction with a selection of professors. What if there was collaboration from the ground up as well as from the top down?

Can’t it be a game? Can we find a way to use Oculus? What about if the sneering of “it’s a game” becomes instead, “it’s a game.” We ooo and aaah over virtual college visits. What about immersion virtual college classes?

RELATED: The Coming ‘Hybrid’ Education

This unbundling will also shake loan companies, banks, and financial aid in general. Is COVID-19 going to be responsible for ushering in affordable higher education? It may sound like chaos theory at work, but wouldn’t that be great.

Shake It Down to the Core

As Craig says in Colleges Should Go Back to School on Remote Learning, if universities had spent the same amount of time in preparing professors for continual remote teaching as they did installing Plexiglas and hand sanitizer stations, we could already be at the beginning of the Yellow Brick Road. “Due to our failure to materially improve remote learning, COVID will be the shot heard round the higher education world: the start of the Great Unbundling revolution,” he says.

Let’s use this momentum to restructure and change higher education into something better. Can there be online colleges, and in-person colleges, and something in between? Get a Harvard education but never go to Boston? Study internationally without a passport? Can it be done? Yes. Should it? Just like when I had to write a defense for an online thesis, absolutely.


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