The future of the past-university online

After a tumultuous time in higher education over past months, particularly in the EdTech and online learning spaces, it may be time to reflect, re-energise, and critically appraise. The past is full of junctures and upheavals, turning points and divergent paths, and it is the historian’s job make sense of significant events and attempt to bring them together into a coherent whole. There are several competing narratives around higher education now, each competing for their historical moment. I will offer a high-level outline of two key themes that I have distilled from the numerous online conferences and forums that I have attended over recent weeks.  This is meant as a general observation to provoke refection and imagination, rather than a deep dive into nuanced areas of debate.

The future will be online

During the Cold War, the Internet was designed as a post-apocalyptic command grid. In the event of a nuclear attack, that destroyed the communication systems of the Capitalist West, the survivors could send messages to each other to launch missiles to destroy the Communist East.  The logic of the Internet, to survive an apocalypse, was not a rosy picture of the future (and computing’s role in it), but a historically embedded response to the reality of the day, and this reality was not pretty.

Today’s reality is perhaps not that far removed from the original idea of the Internet; to survive an apocalypse. Most countries of the world are in some sort of COVID-response lockdown with mass-education systems now operating entirely online. This reality was unimaginable only a few years ago and indeed would not have been possible without the hard work of the innovators in online learning.

It is thus perhaps not surprising that many employed in the online learning space, that have done all the heavy-lifting to keep the lights on in higher education in recent months, see the future of education as online. In recent weeks, this optimistic affirmation has come up again and again, by senior university administrators, to EdTech entrepreneurs: it is taking today’s historical moment and projecting it into the indeterminate future (and if the 1960s future-vision was correct, then we would all be glowing in the dark by now).

The future of online may be quite different to what it has been in the past as it may not be a simple matter of scaling-up the hard work and innovation that has already been done (indulge my speculation here). The online education space is predominantly focussed upon courses that deliver skills and knowledge acquisition, primarily for younger students that require flexibility, or for older professionals already in good jobs wishing to reskill or change professions. This is a reasonably defined area of education and something that online does incredibly well (and some universities do better than others).

But I am not sure if this can be scaled to all or even most of higher education without confronting thorny issues of ‘academic scale’. What I mean by this is that ‘constructivism’, for instance, that has become prevalent over the past twenty years or so in online learning design may be inadequate to scale to other or all higher-education publics.  For instance, the constructivist ideal of ‘student-centred learning’ has been around for an awfully long time, close to 100 years if aligned with John Dewey’s early, ground-breaking work. But constructivism supports a particular type of industrial society and even a particular type of social realism typical in the early 20th Century US and Britain. Sure, it has been adapted and refined to the needs of contemporary education both on and offline. Still, perhaps it is time to give something else a crack as the student may have moved to some other centre. (I am thinking something much more minimalist, less prescriptive to provoke creativity, combined with a ‘real-world’, ‘experientialism’ in group contexts, something like the Minerva Schools at KGI ). I will leave this idea open, as I have not entirely thought it through. Still, my point is that if online education is to scale from its strong constructivist roots, learning design must appreciate that higher-education is embedded in other at times divergent cultural contexts with different educational needs and long epistemologically rooted world-views (i.e. the creative industries, humanities and social sciences, and pure science).

Lifelong learning will be the norm

Another fundamental affirmation reinforced over recent months in several forums is that lifelong learning is the new norm.  Lifelong learning is something that is facilitated incredibly-well online; this is, provide flexible micro-credentials, short-courses, and re-skilling-degrees for students at different stages of their life. Services such as LinkedIn Learn, Coursera, Futurelearn, edX and Practera are invaluable to a professional workforce wishing to remain current, or simply learn something new (that may send students in some fruitful lateral journeys).

The provision of lifelong learning products and services has indeed blossomed, evident in the recent Melbourne EdTech Summit (September 2020). There is a plethora of terrific work being done in experiential learning (Practera), assessments (Cadmus), Open learning and training platforms (Open Learning), and (G01). There is also a lot of innovative thinking about ‘packaging’ and ‘credentialising’ lifelong learning so that it is relevant to individuals at different life stages and work contexts. However, the lifelong learning conversation again lacks clarity when it is considered at scale. There is already an assumption in some degrees (i.e., the humanities) that learning is already forever once you ‘learn-how-to-learn’ (except how to code; this is hard). Lifelong learning is also less clear with post-graduate research-based degrees are considered, as the emphasis on research degrees is finding-stuff-out-for-yourself, and if you have done this once or twice, you could probably do it again.

That aside, there is stacks of ‘lifelong learning ‘happening right now; people re-skilling due to mass-unemployment, people stuck at home looking for things to do, unable to go to the local pub with their mates. There are terrific courses out there, literally thousands of them on dozens of platforms and heaps of topics. But still, the micro-credential scene seems a little ‘Kevin from HR’ in that they generally emanate from a particular historical context that may not scale well to all aspiring life-long-learners (sorry Kevin).

Right now, there are lots of unemployed creative people in Melbourne, and creativity is at the heart of all innovation and is equally the lifeblood of Melbourne’s much-prized liveability. Perhaps micro-credentials on dancing at work, guitar playing, digital ethics, historical storytelling, drumming, and ‘psychogeography’ (or something like this). The humanities and social sciences have an enormous role to play in online education because there is not only a skills deficit in some areas of Australian industry there is also a gaping ‘meaning deficit’ (these are existential times). With a bit of creativity, we could bridge that divide as humanities skills are timeless, knowledge-based, employability skills that are even more powerful when combined the hard-and-fast skills needed to solve the problems of an advanced knowledge economy. (And Northeastern University in the US is doing some great work in terms of combining humanities and social sciences majors with other degrees, and in experiential learning in arts and industry-based settings, with the help of the Australian-based company Practera).

Future angst

Optimism is an impoverished means to navigate the ambiguity of an uncertain future, and indeed it was not a culture of optimism in which the Internet was developed during the Cold War. It was a realistic and pragmatic response to the significant external threat of the moment (before higher education took the Internet in another direction). There are enormous challenges ahead for higher education requiring great captains at the helm. Still, I doubt that online education is the central longer-term solution to many of the problems unless reimagined to encompass more educated publics. There are many creative solutions now, micro-credentials, single post-graduate subjects, mixing of programs from different providers, flexible course starting times (not sure how this works), and terrific ‘non-credentialised’ courses (thanks to General Assembly). But still, something is lacking in this uncertain landscape, and this is the awareness that there are going to be less people employed, fewer students, less budget to pay for EdTech, and uncertain policy and political landscapes. Creativity is no stranger to adversity, and when we emerge from behind our screens, there is an enormous opportunity to respond in an informed, critical and realistic way and meet the needs of our times. As long as there is creativity in the word, the online project will never be completed.

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