This guest post has been written by Martin Hamilton. Martin Hamilton is a British computer scientist with thirty years’ experience of working at the global digital forefront.
He runs a digital innovation consultancy, martinh.net, which has a particular focus on research and education. Martin recently undertook a study with the Association of Commonwealth Universities exploring how their membership of over 500 universities in 50 countries has responded to the pandemic.
All universities have become the Open University
There was a brief moment in the Summer of 2020 when it felt as though the pandemic might actually be over, vanquished not by the heroic vaccine wielding scientists of the Prime Minister’s fever dreams, but by good old British common sense. People had kept themselves to themselves for months, drastically limiting the vectors that the virus had to spread. It was all played out, wasn’t it?
Against the backdrop of the brewing storm over ‘mutant’ algorithms exposing the inherent inequity in grade quotas for high stakes exams, universities scrambled to prepare for some sort of normality.
Online teaching and learning approaches were frantically developed to cater for those who would inevitably have to self-isolate, whilst institutions simultaneously tried to work out how to reduce the risk to staff and students from unavoidable interpersonal contact on their premises and estates.
Little did all our universities realise how quick and how total their transformation into the Open University would be.
When just in time is just too late
The lesson from American universities
As I said in my talk on COVID-19 and the campus for the Association of University Directors of Estates, by the time A Level results came out, it was already too late.
The lesson from American universities, which re-opened in early August, was that each mass migration of students acted as its own super spreader event.
Students would go on to seed infections in hitherto unaffected communities, and dogmatic insistence on face-to-face tuition by some institutions would only make matters worse.
According to reporting in Nature, more than 1,000 US four year colleges and universities planned to bring students back to campus, with nearly half aiming to teach primarily or fully in person. However, these plans had to be swiftly rethought:
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) announced on 17 August that, because of outbreaks of COVID-19 among students, it would shift all undergraduate classes online, a week after bringing students back to campus.
The UK return to campuses
This pattern was subsequently repeated at institution after institution across the United States. It then followed in the UK as Scottish universities welcomed students back in early September, with Edinburgh Napier and St Andrews among the first to report outbreaks on the 17th and 18th of September.
There was still time, just enough time, to tell the rest of the UK’s students to stay at home and stay safe. However, by this point the entire system was set up to operate a ‘normal’ Autumn term, and government had been very clear that this was what universities were expected to do.
The rest is history, with this Autumn representing a very different kind of student experience – of lockdowns and food parcels, enforced isolation and massive fines for transgressing.
Of course, the history is still being made as students return home to families and communities across the land for the Christmas break…
The near future university is still very online
When we look forwards to 2021 and beyond, there are two key branching probabilities – on the one hand, rapid testing and vaccine distribution may enable us to return to some sort of normality.
On the other, life in lockdown (of one sort or another) will have to continue for some time. And we should keep in mind that viruses keep evolving, so just as we periodically need a new flu vaccine, we are likely to need new COVID vaccines.
Will our universities be able to stop being the Open University and go back to their regular ways of operating?
I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that I think it would be extremely risky to plan on that basis. Instead, institutions need to continue to be prepared to support staff and students who are self-isolating or simply unable to visit campus for a variety of reasons, such as more rigorous travel restrictions.
If you are a student who has been affected by all of this, you could be forgiven for wondering what you are really paying for now.
A new reality for teaching and learning
Universities around the world have been desperately trying to sustain their existing business models as the pandemic has raged around them, but perhaps it is time to ask ourselves whether some subjects could be taught just as effectively without requiring students to relocate or travel to campus at all.
I’ve already mentioned the Open University, which has been the trailblazer for distance learning, but it’s fair to say that there have been a lot of startups working in this space, even if none of them has really found their feet yet.
FAANGs get stuck in
What I think will be really fascinating to see in the coming years is the extent to which hyper scale internet companies start to seriously look at online education as a potential market segment.
This is just the kind of thing that shareholders would likely welcome from the likes of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google – the so-called FAANGs.
Already most of the big technology companies offer extensive e-learning programmes for their own products and services, including rigorous certification-based qualifications. It’s really not much of a stretch to generalise and diversify, if the time and the price is right.
If this sounds fanciful, bear in mind that just this summer Google announced its Google Career Certificate programme, stating that:
College degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn’t need a college diploma to have economic security. We need new, accessible job-training solutions–from enhanced vocational programs to online education–to help America recover and rebuild.
If this wasn’t enough to give universities and prospective students pause for thought, Walker also adds that:
In our own hiring, we will now treat these new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles.
Look to the future now
As we look to the future now, we may ask ourselves a couple of questions:
Q1. Will universities as we know them cease to exist overnight?
No, they won’t, but some may well struggle to remain viable as they juggle sunk costs and debt servicing with much reduced income from students, conferences and other sources.
For UK universities, the continued uncertainty around what Brexit will look like and entail is also a massive issue, potentially dwarfing COVID-19 – hard as that may seem to believe right now.
Q2. Will nimble startups or internet giants corner the market in online education?
Perhaps not at first, and those that are showing the most promise are focussing on subjects that lend themselves to a virtual digital approach.
If I was a betting man, I would take a punt on them for the simple reason that they do not have to retrofit a centuries old approach and mindset for digital delivery, and do not have sprawling campuses to maintain.
And let’s not forget that many of those students coming home for Christmas, such as finalists, may never set foot on campus or walk into a lecture theatre again.