Adapting to a changing world requires learning and models to support this that work when the old one’s no longer do.
Scott Galloway — Prof G — is on a tear. In late June 2020 his name (and sometimes face and voice) was almost everywhere. The NYU professor, commentator and author was gaining a lot of attention for what he said about the current and near-future state of higher education on his own website and in New York Magazine, podcasts, and TV. What stood out was this one phrase: The Walking Dead.
What he was speaking about was the coming academic school year for post-secondary institutions in the United States and how many of those institutions are likely to fail hard when it comes to delivering value and retaining investment (i.e., student tuition). What this provides us with is a case study in massive, rapid system change and how we may witness it in real time.
The interview on PBS’ Amanpour and Company brings this all together.
I’ve spent three decades in universities both as a student and instructor/professor. I loved my time there, but when I look at what a university offers closely, I can’t help but agree with Professor Galloway. The university model as we know it is about to change on a scale that we’ve never seen before.
Firstly, its important to say that Galloway’s comments are focused on US-based schools, however the central premise behind what he’s saying applies to post-secondary institutions that use scarcity, prestige, and student tuition (particularly from foreign students) to fund themselves. However, what applies to these universities also somewhat applies to many other educational models that are based on the same three variables.
At the heart of Galloway’s argument is that the shift to online classes (either only or in some hybrid form) isn’t going to change the price of education all that much, despite offering students far less of an experience of education. He states in a piece on his weekly blog and points to the chart below:
” A combination of self-aggrandizement and elitism has convinced American universities that our services are worth indebting generations of young people, and now risking becoming agents of spread”
He goes on to point to the fallacy of expecting young people (those most likely on college campuses) to distance themselves and thus create the precautions necessary to prevent further COVID-19 spread. This is a side-bar to the larger issue: that universities have created a model of scarcity and cost that has distorted the value of education while providing little incentive to improve poor performance.
Online learning…Or just digital content?
Like nearly every knowledge-based workplace, universities had to ‘go remote’ quickly with pandemic lockdowns. Professors and students did their best at a time when few were at their best. But there’s a difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Well-crafted online learning is designed with the environment and context in mind. Professors who have taught effective online courses know that the effort required is different than with traditional face-to-face courses, often requiring more, rather than less time to do well.
Some of that is due to the manner in which a course is structured, adjusting and creating content that is appropriate to the medium, and the inevitable requirement to play some role of ‘IT support’ even at a minor level as everyone navigates software compatibilities, bandwidth, and hardware issues.
Parents of school-aged children who’ve been suddenly thrust into the role of teacher as primary and secondary-schools went online will also attest that kids aren’t getting the same benefits as they would have in a physical classroom. Anecdotally, I’ve heard parents speak about their children getting a small fraction of the benefit from online instruction. This is not just about online learning but the conditions that it’s been done in. Indeed, there’s considerable evidence that students can do well using online classes, but those classes need to be designed for online learning and most of what we saw in the winter and spring of 2020 was not that.
What do you mean by learning?
This was the question that Community Psychologist and educator Seymour Sarason asked and the answers he got were many. The answers to this question determine the quality of the experience we are likely to get.
There are two months to go before children and adults return to school. As someone who has witness to the inner workings at multiple post-secondary institutions and through connections with teachers I can say that whatever students are expecting, it’s not going to be learning as I define it. The reasons are simple: an effective online experience requires craft and specific pedagogical skills that most professors and teachers do not have and were not trained for. These are not developed overnight and cannot simple result in taking what happened in the classroom and putting it up on some learning management system.
When our courses go virtual, the timing, cadence, and content has to change. As a researcher, I know that I can ask far fewer questions on an online survey than a paper-based one. Why? Fatigue. Add-in rich media like online whiteboards, video chat, and real-time multi-channel class discussions and you have far more fatigue than you ever would in class. The term Zoom-fatigue is just a tip of the iceberg.
Now multiply this by X classes per week, per term and you will quickly find that things don’t go as planned. The amount of contact-time needs to drop (or change), the amount of content needs to change. I’ve taught graduate students who have to work on collaborative, highly visual and technical projects where the coordination costs of arranging time to meet, work duties, and do the work is hard enough face-to-face. That’s much more challenging when it’s all at a distance.
What happens when people who are paying full-price get an educational experience that isn’t the same value? What happens when learners graduate with degrees that were completed through a series of half-baked courses? Will employers want to hire them? Will I trust in them to do the work? Or will this lower the bar for what structured learning is all about altogether? Or will, as Professor Galloway suggests, we see a hollowing out of the middle with many universities disappear, unable to adapt and compete with their high overheads and low value proposition?
The experiment is starting. Let’s start gathering our data, because it’s going to be quite the study.