Online uni a failed test
ONE of the unhappy coincidences of Covid is that it has given commercial organisations a chance to eliminate costly practices under the cover of pandemic avoidance. The best example of this is the fact that online learning appears to be here to stay in universities where students are now paying an arm and a leg for degrees that lack the rigour and face-time they did a generation ago.
My 18-year-old daughter this year started doing the same course I did at the same university back in the late 1980s. The two key differences are that, in my case, I paid a paltry few grand to complete my degree, whereas she will spend the first decade of her working life paying off her HECS debt; and second, while I was barely home while studying, she has hardly left the house.
This is because much of what passes for university these days involves sitting alone in your bedroom watching lectures on Zoom or Microsoft teams.
Sure, there is still face-to-face class time in the form of tutorials, but the amount of mandated on-campus time stands at half or maybe even one-third of what it was in the 1980s.
The justification for this shift is largely down to Covid. With the nationwide closures last year and the lockdowns in NSW and Victoria, online lectures have been the only way universities could keep the show on the road.
It’s fair enough. But in terms of the value for money for what are seriously expensive degrees, and the quality of the education students receive, I can see no reason why this arrangement should continue post-Covid, as there is no comparison between face-to-face learning and its online equivalent.
The nature of work has changed for the worse under Covid with stilted and passive meetings via Zoom replacing the collaborative and collegiate nature of inperson staff get-togethers.
I cannot imagine how boring and unrewarding watching online lectures must be. I know from the experience of my daughter and her peers that fastforwarding through the so-called boring bits of lectures is par for the course.
More importantly it undermines the social nature of university. The whole point of university aside, from the learning part, is the campus part, and we risk creating an entire generation of recluses with an arrangement that seems more cost-driven than based on educational outcomes.
There is a growing backlash around the world about plans to make online study the norm. Universities in the UK are under fire for confirming they will continue with remote learning for lectures even though restrictions have been lifted and social distancing wound back. I have heard several university chiefs claim that this younger generation of students actually prefer online lectures as they are products of the digital age.
My hunch is that at a time of tightened budgets, and with no income from international students, the unis prefer them a hell of a lot more. That would seem to be the case with the students who have held protests at a growing number of Australian unis including UTS Sydney, Macquarie, Monash and Curtin.
One of the biggest protests happened last month at the University of the Sunshine Coast, which made the radical decision to scrap all lectures, live and online, and replace them from next year with materials such as quizzes and podcasts.
The idea you can reduce a degree to a quick quiz and some podcast really
The idea you can reduce a degree to a quick quiz and some podcast really does sound like a race to the bottom
does sound like a race to the bottom.
There is plenty of evidence that it’s not only the students who are disengaged in all this, but the lecturers, too, with several universities now recycling lectures where academics just hit play on some prerecorded text.
Surely all the dynamism and interaction and argument you should expect from uni life will be lost with this passive approach? And beyond the nowempty lecture theatres, it really makes you wonder what the whole campus experience will be like for all these young people.
While HECS has done its part in making campus life more buttoned-down and boring than it was in the 1980s, the shift to online risks killing it stone dead.
This is not only a problem for the current generation of students, who are paying through the nose to sit in their bedrooms staring at a laptop, but for governments and business as they face the prospect of a more insular and unworldly influx of graduates thanks to this age of Zoom and hard-headed, Covidinspired accounting.