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Commentary: The coronavirus is sending universities back to school

Online education won’t replace the in-person variety, but will complement it, says the Financial Times’ Simon Kuper.

Commentary: The coronavirus is sending universities back to school

A Harvard student sits with her belongings before returning home on March 12, 2020, as students left campus due to the coronavirus pandemic AFP/Maddie Meyer

LONDON: Six months ago, few of the world’s academics had taught an online class. Now they’re almost all doing it.

I asked dozens of them about their experiences. My conclusion: Online education won’t replace the in-person variety, but will complement it.

University teaching after the pandemic will be blended: A mix of both methods.

That could revolutionise universities, help them survive the economic crisis and bring higher education to tens of millions of people who have never set foot on campus.

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Most academics I heard from aren’t enjoying teaching online. They plunged into the global experiment untrained, to a backdrop of children at home, poor Wi-Fi and lockdown anxiety.

Some students in online classes are embarrassed by their homes, or are struggling to follow PowerPoint presentations on mobile phones.

The human factor is lacking: Zoom kills most jokes. One professor told me the experience had reassured him he would never be replaced by a robot.

These accounts fit the long-term record of online education: Though it has grown, dropout rates remain high.

(Photo: Unsplash/Dan Dimmock)

The yearning to return to the classroom is reasonable, but also reflects the traditionalism of most universities. Academics, parents, alumni and employers inevitably accord status to the types of learning they themselves experienced decades before.

Somebody from 1800 walking into a college last year would have recognised most teaching methods.

The ancient campus model probably works well for those aged 18 to 24 with several years to spare and well-off families. Yet even this small privileged cohort has just taken an economic wallop.

In the largest academic market, the US, fewer families can now stump up US$200,000 or more for a degree. Cash-strapped states won’t help them. Some colleges may fold.

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But blended education could expand the university market to all ages, classes and countries. In many poorer countries, including China and India, fewer than one person in 20 aged 15-plus had completed tertiary education in 2010, according to the World Bank.

Many “left-behind” adults everywhere would love to learn from home, get qualifications and change their lives, especially if the pandemic has left them jobless.


We need more adult learners. Their numbers in the UK almost halved between 2004 and 2016, write Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton in The New Long Life.

David Blake and Kelly Palmer of Degreed, an educational technology company, point out that if you ask someone about their current health, the answer, “I ran a marathon 20 years ago” would make no sense.

Yet ask people about their education and they tell you where they studied 20 years ago.

(Photo: Unsplash/Vasily Koloda)

As lifespans expand, and technology changes, we should top up our education over the decades, while keeping our jobs and families. University is wasted on the young.

Blended teaching could help more students enter higher education, argues Chris Stone of Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government.

He proposes a model in which some students spend a month on campus, then months studying from home, before returning to campus for the final weeks. That would allow universities to teach multiple cohorts a year, cutting tuition costs.

Stone believes this model could give students all seven elements of university education: Knowledge (what is quantum physics?), skills (doing a case study at business school), content, a credential, networks (with fellow students, faculty or alumni), an institutional affiliation (“I’m a Duke alum”) and, in some cases, entry into elite society (“my college roommate is a senator”).

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Anita Pilgrim, who teaches at the UK’s Open University, which pioneered blended learning, cautions that remote learners need lots of support. Her university has educational advisers who help students find a study-life balance, apply for funding, access resources for dyslexia and so on.

She tries to meet students in person when possible. “You can’t just expect them to have a laptop and log in and get on with education. They probably spend their first year … figuring out how to study,” she says.


Other academics, who are innovating daily, gave me examples of online methods that show promise. One is the trend to “flipping”: Students first watch a lecture on video at home, then do assignments in an online class, where the teacher can help them.

Zoom’s “chat” function can get shy students talking. The added value of a classroom is interaction, so anything that isn’t interactive should be done outside class.

Sitting through online meetings for extended periods is unhealthy and a brief burst of exercise does not make up for it.(Photo: Unsplash/Chris Montgomery)

Academics report seeking more contact with locked-down students, through emails or Zoom calls. They are inviting star speakers for guest appearances, ditching rigid timetables to give short lectures when appropriate and recording videos that answer students’ questions. Some have even reworked their jokes for Zoom.

Teaching online has shortcomings – but so does in-person teaching. Patrick McDevitt, a historian at the University at Buffalo, says: “Many professors are not brilliant lecturers. Many students skip lectures or spend them on their phones or daydreaming.”

READ: Commentary: No ordinary disruption – a rising generation meets the coronavirus

Personally, I’ve embraced online education. My wife and I have set up a free lockdown-era “university”, Pandemonium U, which is bringing expert speakers to people stuck at home worldwide.

The experience has given me a glimpse of the countless untapped adults yearning to learn.

LISTEN: Why lifting lockdowns and easing restrictions may be the biggest COVID-19 test for countries

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Source: Financial Times/el


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