What Will Universities Lose If New ‘‘Normal’’ Stays with Us?

James_Malton_Trinity_College_Library_Dublin
James Malton: Trinity College Library Dublin // Public domain

While colleges are preparing for online or hybrid education, besides the advantages, we need to consider the downsides of this type of education.

In the last few months, life at the universities has changed dramatically and involuntarily. Lectures and tutorials have shifted online, Zoom became the new lecture hall and seminar room, and students had a taste of what it is like to have their exams or finals take place online.

As governments have been trying to control the pandemic by shutting down borders and closing countries, international students in the United States, for instance, had faced closed dorms and the fact that they might need to leave a country where they were seeking to pursue a degree.

Will This Be the New Normal?

As leading universities around the world, such as the University of Cambridge or the California State University, are announcing that their education remains online at least for the fall semester, college education will likely change for a longer period of time.

Certainly, one might argue that the last four months were just a trial run since universities needed to act suddenly, and, therefore, both students and teachers have experienced difficulties, to put it mildly. Not just administrative or concentration issues popped up, but also students were obviously anxious about seemingly simple, yet important, problems, including internet connection or their privacy (which they usually needed to give up once tuned in to an online seminar).

Moreover, the data suggests that students faced a general problem: approximately 75% of college students in the U.S. are disappointed with the online education they received in the last couple of months.

Although everything seems uncertain right now, universities’ administration, examination boards, and program coordinators have time, even if that is just a short summer, to prepare for a totally new type of education and fix such problems.

However, some issues are not necessarily solvable. Universities are simply not able to provide broadband internet connection for students from low-income families, even though this seems crucial for online education.

They might organize several online seminars, taking place throughout the day, but still, there will always be students in some parts of the world who need to stay up until late because of time differences. But there are other aspects of the university experience that are in danger because of COVID-19.

The First Victim: Large-Scale Lectures

Large-scale lectures, the most typical example of the old-style university teaching, have been a target of criticism for quite some time: they represent the old-fashioned and traditional way of frontal teaching while the opportunities for discussions and arguments are limited.

Yet, they have been with us for centuries, and by putting students with a very different background into a lecture hall, lectures contribute to promoting inclusiveness – no matter where attendees come from, what kind of previous education they have, they all have the same opportunity to learn from someone who is standing in front of them.

But it seems that such lectures will not come back any time soon: even universities that prepare for a hybrid education plan to put aside the on-campus lectures and aim for campus education with small-scale tutorials.

However, at many universities, even these tutorials will remain online, which will have dramatic effects.

It is true that Zoom gives a (virtual) room for discussions or arguments, or for the flow of ideas which is an essential part of seminars. It does not give a room, though, for many aspects coming with such seminars: there, students – again, with different backgrounds and knowledge – sit together, and are expected to listen to each other, hearing other perspectives, viewpoints, and experiencing something that one might refer to as collective thinking.

It is such a liberal experience by nature; a platform for exchanging ideas, where students are supposed to react to each other, consider all the opinions. This does not happen all the time, certainly, but generally speaking, such an experience helps to boost social mobility: for instance, a low-income and a high-income student have the same opportunity to contribute to the flow of ideas.

According to the already existing data, this may not happen when it comes to off-campus education, since disadvantaged students with a tougher background or who struggle financially are more likely to fall behind or even drop out.

Those who stay, though, still get a different experience: they are not sitting next to each other, are more likely to lose their focus, and many can feel their social differences: some are having a smooth seminar with fast WiFi and a separate workroom, while others are struggling to find a quiet place and satisfactory connection.

What About the Mobility?

Although there are many differences between universities, a vast majority of them are strongly dependent on international students, coming from abroad and usually paying higher tuition fees. But that works vice versa: mobility in higher education is beneficial for foreign students as it gives them a chance to pursue a degree at a highly respected institution. This process makes higher education more international and inclusive.

As colleges are preparing for a hybrid or off-campus education, students will think twice whether or not they want to move abroad in these uncertain times. The Trump administration was planning to order that international students must follow at least one on-campus course in the coming semester, otherwise, they would need to leave the United States.

Ultimately, the administration dropped this plan, but only because universities started to sue the federal government.

In the Netherlands, for example, a new survey showed that 36% of potential international students were uncertain about going to the U.S. due to the coronavirus.

If universities lose a large number of foreign students (which is a very likely scenario at the moment), this will lead to a less inclusive, more closed education system. There will be not just one but at least three victims: universities, regional economies, and students.

Cheaper Education?

While we mourn the potential losses of the higher education system, it is also important to realize what advantages the colleges could get from it. By digitalizing their education, even leading universities may offer an entirely remote education, resulting in lower tuition fees and the chance that talented but low-income students from all over the world can achieve a degree at a respected university.

While COVID-19 forces them to do such things, this is something that they could have done long before the pandemic hit.

It is clear that the current situation is not the fault of universities at all. And forcing them to go back to normal in the countries where the curve is not flattening yet is simply irresponsible.

However, in the long-term perspective, they need to consider that traditional, on-campus education is something that cannot be done away with so easily. Simply put, damages will become immediately visible if the on-campus teaching and all the related experiences disappear.


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Marton Gera
Republikon Institute