Just like the impact of earlier technological novelties, higher education will adapt and come out stronger with virtual learning, writes Ilian Mihov, INSEAD Dean
Throughout the world, the decision to reopen university campuses has been a source of fierce controversy. The University of Notre Dame, University of North Carolina and Michigan State University have already been forced to suspend in-person classes following a surge in Covid cases on campus. At the same time, opposing arguments, such as that of Brown University President Christina Paxson, emphasise a host of issues that students and universities will face if campuses remain closed, highlighting the difficulties remote learning presents for less privileged students.
What does all this mean from the educational point of view? Since digital alternatives that maximise safety exist, is there a non-financial argument for retaining the campus? How does it help further the education of students who are not enrolled in courses such as Nursing or Chemistry that require a specific physical environment. Does in-person higher education even have a future?
Is this the end of the campus
As the dean of a global business school who also sits on numerous education boards, I know that higher education has weathered numerous rounds of technological innovation in the past. One of the very biggest was the introduction of the printing press in the 15th century. Rather than sending higher education into decline, Gutenberg’s innovation made universities stronger than ever. As has the arrival of the calculator, the personal computer and the internet.
Just like the impact of earlier technological novelties, higher education will adapt and come out stronger with virtual learning. Rather than being disrupted, the institutions that survive this crisis will be augmented by the new technology. Getting there, however, will entail a radical rethink of the university campus as we have known it for generations.
But before we get into that, let us back up a bit. The legacy model of higher education has worked so well – and lasted so long – because it balances two complementary ways of learning: vertical (top-down), and horizontal (social).
Vertical learning is what happens in a lecture hall or office hours.
Students frantically take notes or discuss the material with an expert. In effect, a vertical learning space is anywhere a professor or someone else officially knowledgeable is doing most of the important talking. Vertical learning is the formal part of education.
Horizontal learning usually occurs between the students themselves.
Educators can try to inspire it by facilitating projects like group assignments, but it also happens spontaneously as students cross paths after class, or debate at cafeteria tables. Horizontal learning is often informal, uncontrollable, and indifferent to our daily schedules.
Vertical learning can be planned and packaged. It is possible in an online context, and given the new realities, that is where it will stay. Before the long-awaited vaccine arrives, packed lecture halls and cloistered conversations with professors are best avoided.
Pros and cons of virtual learning
No doubt, virtual classrooms have their drawbacks. For example, it is much easier to read the room when teaching face-to-face: Are the students engaged, bored or confused?
There is also the reality of ‘Zoom fatigue’. Professors’ energies may wane over the course of days and weeks of wrestling with the myriad challenges associated with teaching online. And students, too, have reported that online learning lacks the intimacy and interactivity of real-world classrooms. Pre-COVID research found that students learn less in online classes than they do in-person.
However, after a period of adjustment, teaching online may become second nature, and offerings may improve as a result. As professors acclimate to the bells and whistles associated with this technology, they will come to appreciate certain freedoms or additional technical capabilities that are lacking in conventional classroom settings.
In a huge lecture hall, for example, it is logistically difficult for students to hive off into smaller groups and then have everyone reconvene in a timely fashion. Within Zoom, the ease of creating virtual breakout rooms removes those hurdles, making it easy to dispel the prolonged passivity of listening to a lecture with interactive sessions. This is a more effective approach that compensates for the depersonalising tendencies of technology and reaffirms students’ active involvement in their own learning.