“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”
The above quote is attributed to Albert Einstein, a school dropout at 15, who hated the conventional system of education. Isaac Newton was 22 when the Great Plague struck London in 1665. He was just another student at Trinity College, Cambridge, which had shut down due to the pandemic. Newton worked from his Woolsthorpe Manor home, occasionally gazing at the apple tree, formulating calculus, and discovering the laws of motion. He later referred to this ‘socially distanced’ time as his annus mirabilis. Michael Faraday regularly attended the free lectures offered by renowned scientists as part of social “betterment” programmes for the working class. It was through these free lectures that he met his mentor, Humphry Davy, with whom he spent several years in a one-on-one apprenticeship. Musing and experimenting in an unstructured environment thus proved revolutionary for them and changed the face of science.
More recently, when the SARS virus hit the world, many countries closed all schools. Ebola triggered the same response in Africa. At the recent Covid-19 peak, 90% of the world’s students were not learning in physical classrooms. If we see another wave of infections, some think the pandemic could catalyse the world’s reliance on online education and cause more than temporary school closures. With the twin factors of extremely high costs and disruptive instructional technologies affecting modern education, will students and professors adapt to online education platforms?
Both students and teachers have indeed plunged into the global experiment untrained, in the backdrop of children at home, poor Wi-Fi, and lockdown anxiety. The New York Times reported a professor at Loyola University, New Orleans, teaching online from his courtyard, wearing a bathrobe, and sipping a glass of wine. Some students are embarrassed by their homes or are struggling to follow presentations on their mobile phones. With the human factor missing, Zoom kills most one-liners. This experience has reassured one professor that he would never be replaced by a robot.
First introduced around 2008, MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses—promised to provide affordable quality instruction allowing professionals to complete a degree from top institutions, while continuing to work. But there were problems. First, MOOC certificates were slow to be recognised as legitimate credentials for employment. Second, most undergraduate students preferred to attend physical schools, interacting with other students, participating in basketball fixtures, and generally absorbing the “college experience”. Parents had zero interest in paying upwards of $75,000 a year to have their children take classes on a computer screen. Third, students benefit from on-campus networking opportunities that are hard to replicate online. The result? Although MOOCs are still around, their impact on higher education has been marginal.
Most top universities are developing NextGen remote learning platforms. All Harvard summer school courses will be taught online, including the MPA Summer Program at the Kennedy School. However, the disruptive forces will likely be problematic for those with fewer financial resources and weaker reputations. As technology enables the best universities to expand their wings and reach more students and hire the best professors, elite colleges will better compete with colleges in other geographies. A post-Covid world will resemble a winner-takes-all market where tier 1/tier 2 schools and colleges must quickly change or disappear altogether.
However, predictions on Covid-19 altering forever the way in which nations impart education are a bit exaggerated. Why?
In Star Trek, the character Mr. Spock says: “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.” The internet is an ersatz version of face-to-face interactions between teachers and students. Zoom, Edmodo, Google Classroom, Turnitin, Schoology, et al. are akin to band-aids over a bullet wound. What is a chemistry course without experimenting with ‘real’ chemicals or a biology class without a microscope lab that lets you examine actual cells? Would you really want to drive over a bridge built by an engineer who has only built ‘virtual bridges’ on a computer? Online education is better than nothing, but it is a pale shadow of the ‘real’ thing. Reading Emerson on the screen isn’t the same as reading a physical book. Sure, anyone could browse a course website, just as anyone could read a good textbook instead of going to class. But that will not replace in-person teaching. At best it may be a good supplement.
College isn’t just about the degree. The reason why wealthy people invariably send their children to full-time, residential college for four years is because that model works. There is something very important about living with a bunch of other young adults who are all also trying to figure out how to best navigate adult life at the same time. It is about the residential experience and the independence it fosters; the networking and social connections that can only come from being with others; athletics that bring joy and camaraderie to students growing into their own. The proposition that sitting in a room by yourself, staring at a screen could ever be considered even a rough facsimile of college is frankly farcical.
Since Gutenberg in 1440, anyone could have bought a book and learnt the material on their own. But education is all about motivation. If you can always watch the lecture later or go back and review it in full prior to the test, it becomes more difficult to stay motivated to pay close attention the first time. And if you can pause it and take breaks at any time, with no teacher watching, you probably will. After class, there are no quiet libraries or study groups to join. MIT has had its entire curriculum online for years. Why do people pay astronomical sums for tuition if almost all theoretical knowledge is available for free? The answer is that on their own it is extremely difficult for people to motivate themselves to learn difficult material. They need a role model; they need to interact with someone who really cares about the material to motivate them to care about it too.
The classroom professor asks questions, nudging students to extend their analyses further. The students play off one another’s energy. Passion is perceived as much from hand gestures and facial expressions as from choice of words—everything is infectious. Sitting in our childhood bedrooms and staring at computer screens, the energy falls flat over Zoom. Long, extended silences prevail with the teacher not receiving the visual affirmations that students are ‘getting it’. Speaking means unmuting one’s microphone, leading almost inevitably to interruptions: loud noises from siblings or Pluto (the pet dog) jumping onto a student’s lap. The class would redirect its focus with someone asking a question about Pluto, and the discussion loses its flow. Next, a student who hadn’t been listening—easy to do on a laptop—would follow up with a point that didn’t relate. Finally, the teacher, looking resigned, would announce that time was up.
The Asian Flu of 1957-58 or the Hong Kong pandemic of 1968-69 did nothing to change the university business model. The current model may very well crumble sometime in the future, but this is not that time. Students are unlikely to abandon their physical campuses for cyberspace en masse. On the contrary, the beauty of classroom education has never been more apparent to the impacted parties.
Online education will supplement in-person teaching not in a revolutionary but in an evolutionary way. It may not metamorphose higher education but will fast-track the integration of technology into it. Zoom’s “chat” function can get shy students talking and faculty may incorporate online tools into their conventional classes. A blended method could help universities tide over the economic crisis and bring education to millions of people who have never set foot on a campus.
The value add of a classroom is interaction, so anything that isn’t interactive should be done outside class. How about a model where students spend a month on campus, then months studying from home, before returning to campus for the final weeks and graduation? Universities can thus teach multiple cohorts a year and cut tuition costs. This model could provide the seven components of college education: knowledge (what are derivatives?), skills (participating in a case study), content, a credential, networks (with fellow students, alumni or faculty), an institutional affiliation (“I’m a Harvard alum”) and, even entry into elite society (“my college roomie is the U.S. Treasury Secretary”).
World War II propelled women into jobs that had traditionally been done by men. People are averse to new ideas until external shocks compel them to change. We are now at this inflection point. College is an experience, not a bunch of pre-taped recordings on YouTube. While online versus classroom is an interesting debate, online is not the ‘new normal’ for education. It is probably a new component of the education of tomorrow, but not the totality of it.
Views are personal. The author is a Harvard alumnus and works for an investment bank in Mumbai. He is also a member of the Young Scholars Initiative at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, founded by George Soros et al.