Has Covid changed everything in education? Don't bet on it – Times Higher Education (THE)

It is often said that education will never look the same again after the pandemic. According to one typical analysis, published by the World Economic Forum: “Covid-19 is driving a long-overdue revolution in education.”
The Democratic nominee for November’s mayoral race in New York, Eric Adams, has even suggested that Covid has proved “you don’t need children to be in a school building with a number of teachers”. Instead, apparently, you can have one exceptional teacher instructing 400 students simultaneously online.
It is no great stretch to understand why politicians are attracted to such models. We seem to be on the cusp of discovering a model of mass education that is either exceptionally cheap or entirely free. According to an article in the New Statesman on higher education, “People all over the world can learn and teach to huge audiences at close to zero marginal cost.” And recently published Australian research suggests that, within a few years, universities “will be just one category of knowledge services provider in a world where learning costs almost nothing”.
It is an exhilarating tale that makes the traditional degree seem outmoded or even irrelevant, and it is made even more persuasive by the absolute certainty of those who tell it. But probe just a little, and you might discover that these visions of the future are not much more than a house of cards.
We have been here before, many times.
More than a century ago, Thomas Edison predicted that moving pictures would make the traditional model of higher education, with books and lectures, “obsolete”. Why bother to attend a face-to-face lecture if you could see recordings of the world’s best lecturers at the local cinema? Over the decades, as a former president of Harvard University has pointed out, similar claims were made about how television, compact cassettes and videotapes would transform learning.
And rather more recently, The New York Times declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC”. It seemed as if massive open online courses were about to bring Ivy League education to millions of people around the world for free. But no one should have believed the hype. Only a tiny proportion of people who start free online courses complete them, and employers do not generally recognise much value in them.
The failed predictions of the past have done little to deter those who are certain that they can still foretell the future. In a forthcoming book, two US academics, Arthur Levine and Scott van Pelt, outline five coming changes for higher education. First, institutions will lose power to students. Second, learners will access “unbundled” education and pick just what they want. Third, new institutions will displace older ones. Fourth, there will be less focus on teaching and more on outcomes. Fifth, students will shift from “just in case” education, like a degree straight from school, to “just in time” education when they need it most.
But these may well be completely the wrong lessons to draw from the past 18 months. For example, far from power leaching from universities to students, the opposite seems to have been happening. There has been substantial growth in demand for courses at the oldest and most traditional universities, which have accordingly become even pickier about whom they admit.
Indeed, every one of Levine and van Pelt’s predictions could turn out to be false. For instance, the long hoped-for influx of new providers to challenge incumbents has not happened. In England, there are about 100 fewer higher education providers registered with the Office for Students than the government expected. In general, private money has found other sectors more enticing, promising faster and more certain returns.
While education never stands entirely still, its history is generally one of incremental change. Plus, different national contexts have tended to mean different countries move at different speeds – and sometimes in different directions. Overall, global education chains remain less impactful than global coffee shop franchises or fast food companies.
Of course, some of the shifts forced on educational institutions by Covid, such as faster roll-out of new technologies, with more remote and less in-person teaching, will leave a mark. All change does. It is a cliché but nonetheless true that the future will be “blended”, meaning edtech will often supplement more traditional learning methods. Disabled students, in particular, could benefit.
Yet students have been demoralised by the crisis. In the UK, far more undergraduates than ever before feel they are receiving poor value for money, and there has been an explosion in mental ill-health. The experience of online learning from their parental home has made many students keener than ever to study in face-to-face settings alongside new friends, far away from where they grew up.
In the face of the biggest disruption to education since the Second World War, the UK’s university admissions service, Ucas, has trumpeted record applications from school-leavers for traditional courses.
So don’t bet your house just yet on the claims of all those educational futurologists.
Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
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