Could it be that the digerati are beginning to wonder about the origins of such ‘innovations’ as video communication, AI, remote work, and more? Are they discovering that all these innovations have a long history in the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs)?
These questions arose as I’ve become aware of a variety of initiatives to better document the history of communication and information technologies and the people associated with the communication revolution. It is arguable that most individuals focused on new advances in media and ICTs have no historical perspective at all. I’ve called it ‘innovation amnesia’. Some think video is new, for example, but have little or no knowledge of the many efforts to launch video communication since the late 1960s.
Most recently I was interviewed by the individuals behind the development of Archives of IT. These developers are realizing that many of those associated with the emergence of information technologies have either passed away or may not be around many more years. The Archives are collecting oral histories of those closely associated with IT and the IT industry in the UK and worldwide. As they began to look at those studying the societal implications of IT, they interviewed me, as the founding director of the OII, among a number of others to begin tracking its study. See: https://archivesit.org.uk/interviews/professor-bill-dutton/
This experience reminded me of my own work in archiving the papers of James H. Quello, one of the longest serving members of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). When I was Director of the Quello Center at MSU I put together the James H. Quello Archives, which is being supported and up-dated by the Quello Center.
Similarly, an old colleague from my USC days (A. Michael Noll) has assembled an archive of William O. ‘Bill’ Baker, who was the vice president for research at Bell Telephone Laboratories from 1955 to 1973, retiring as Chairman in 1980. Bell Labs was critical to the revolution in communication technologies.
Teaching and research could be supported by new materials such as these. Might these be traces of a new interest in the history of ICTs and their implications for society? Possibly, and for two basic reasons.
First, there is an increasingly interesting and cumulative history to document.
Secondly, the gathering of information and conduct of interviews, for example, are increasingly possible anywhere in the world. ICTs have democratized the process of archiving so we no longer have to rely only on special collections in libraries. Individuals and civic minded associations have the wherewithal to archive.
So, as we see people talking about old enduring topics as if they are genuinely new, more of us can see the value of better documenting and preserving the social dynamics of past successes and failures – and we have the means to do it – archiving.
Given continuing uncertainties about the COVID pandemic and its variants, it is understandable that many universities are not in a position as yet to commit to in-person, face-to-face, teaching and a return to normality on college and university campuses. This is particularly the case for those individuals – teachers and students – with medical conditions that would leave them more at risk. However, in some statements, news coverage, and between the lines of pronouncements, there appears to be a strong sentiment to transform teaching in light of the perceived successes and advantages of online teaching. Some see a new normal.
Personally, I have retired from teaching, so perhaps my opinion should not count. Nevertheless, I have taught for decades, have taught a few courses online as well, and have done research on computer-mediated communication and online education. Based on my experience, I would urge universities to return to the old normal of face-to-face classroom teaching as soon as possible (ASAP). Why?
From the student’s perspective, in-person teaching is critical for two basic reasons. First, a key objective of teaching is not simply to transfer information, but to motivate and interest students in the subject matter, specifically, and learning, generally. Face-to-face teaching has a greater potential for such psychological arousal or motivation. It is true that online education and basic reading materials have an arguably equivalent or better role in simply transmitting information. But instructors can assign readings and video lectures to supplement but not replace their teaching. Any student would be wise to go to a university offering maximum exposure to in-person classes, and when there, to take every opportunity to be physically and attentively in class.
I understand the vision that students might be better located in a workplace, such as a production studio or engineering division, where they can apply what they are learning. This has been an aspect of distance education for decades and that should continue. However, in traditional undergraduate and graduate education, the teacher and other students are arguably the most important people to interact with to foster interest and engagement in learning. Certainly not from a student’s home.
Secondly, my best experiences in education have been the result of a teacher becoming a mentor or role model for my own learning and education. Teachers can have a powerful impact on students, such as by commenting on their work, providing encouraging feedback, or helping them understand the strengths and weaknesses of their oral and written contributions to a class. My reflections about my education quickly move to a teacher who inspired me to do better or follow a line of research or study.
From the teacher’s perspective, online teaching is possible. I understand that when a teacher first tries online teaching that they can be pleasantly surprised by its potential. Once they understand the process, it is easy to do, it can be recorded and seen again by students, and even reused, like old lecture notes. That said, you are probably fooled by the technical achievement, as you have little idea how motivational or informative your productions are for your students. They can be listening or not listening with their audio and video muted, while they do other things, like checking their social media. Yes, students can sometimes daydream in class and pretend to pay attention, but if that is true, imagine what they will do online. You need to hold their attention and get them excited about what they are reading and learning from the class, and this is less likely to happen online.
But let’s assume that for a small percentage of the most gifted students, an online lecture is potentially better than the average lecture produced by the average teacher. This was the logic behind an initiative I was involved in during the late-1990s in online education involving consortiums of universities in the US. Working in collaboration, it would make no sense for every university in the consortium to have its own lecture on every topic when the universities could select the best teachers for any given topic and enable all the universities to share that lecture – along with thousands of other lectures. It didn’t work in 2000, but it could work in 2025. So unless you are a gifted online producer, you as a college or university instructor will be selecting readings, selecting lectures from your consortium, and maybe leading or moderating online discussions of these materials. In short, most instructors will transform themselves into teaching assistants as the lecturing and teaching moves to the top performers to produce lecture materials.
When I was a freshman in a large state university in 1960s, I took an introduction to psychology course at 8 am in a large lecture hall with over 200 students. It was delivered on televisions in black and white by a professor who had passed away several years before. It didn’t work for me – I usually fell asleep. I recall the class, but not the teacher. It was not inspiring, not motivating. My fear is that we really are thinking of going back to the future here and failing students, teachers, and universities in the process.
Get back into the classroom as soon as it is safe to do so.
Having created and served on advisory boards in a number of organisations and countries, I’ve begun to see some principles that can guide others serving on an advisory board. I am not a management consultant nor an expert on advisory boards, but as I try to think through my own experiences on boards, I thought it would be fun to write about my views on what could be key principles. These have been learned the hard way, by seeing the reactions of organisations and other members of boards to my interventions – efforts to give advice and support organisations, mainly those involved in academic research.
Any organization, such as an academic unit, can get too insulated or too loosely connected to a multitude of important stakeholders, ranging from other academics to policy and practitioner communities and any audiences it seeks to reach. They may ask themselves: Is our work meeting the high expectations set for the organisation? Are we doing our work in ways that are recognised as best practice in relevant communities? How can we excel further on any number of criteria? Are we missing important topics or areas of work? Are there new and promising sources of funding? To answer such questions, it can be helpful to set up a group of individuals who are trusted to be constructive but also have a critical perspective that can inform the unit moving forward.
Given such questions, the organization often sets up an advisory board to review the unit’s work on a periodic basis and give them feedback on notable strengths and any weaknesses that could be addressed. A report or multiple documents are assembled for the board members to review and provide feedback during a short but substantively rich meeting of the board. So what principles might help board members in contributing to their next board meeting? I apologise in advance for keeping this simple, but I often forget them in the process of meeting.
The organization knows far more than the board about its activities and practices.
One positive role of a board meeting is that it should force or at least incentivise the organisation to pull together a clear overview of its activities and the issues it is facing. In the process of pulling this information together and communicating it to the board, a large proportion of the work of the advisory board is accomplished. The managers and leadership of the organisation updates its sense of who has done what and with what impact over the last period of time. In the course of doing so, the organisation develops a better understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, and how they can or cannot be addressed, before the board even meets.
An obvious corollary of this point is that outside advisory boards really can’t possibly understand internal personnel and management issues. They might need to know they exist but without knowing the individuals and circumstances in detail, they have no basic grounding for advising an organisation. Keep the board focused on the work of the organisation and its implications. At the same time, I’ve been impressed when an organisation does not hesitate to note that it is facing some interpersonal, management, or leadership issues as one aspect of conveying the factors facilitating or limiting its work.
2. Advice is not likely to be the only – or even primary – objective of meeting with the board.
An advisory board can help progress a number of objectives with advice being only one and not necessarily the primary reason for its existence. As noted above, it creates an occasion for self-reflection by the organisation. In addition, it can help the unit reach out to other stakeholders and constituencies – by incorporating influential individuals across these different targets for outreach and providing them with information about the organisation. It can provide support to the organisation, endorsing its activities and practices. The status and diversity of individuals on the board can communicate something about the importance and diversity of the organisation. The board in a reflection of the organization.
3. There is limited time for advice.
It seems inevitable that there is limited time a board can be expected to spend reading material before a meeting, and meetings are generally limited to one or at most a few hours. Once board members reintroduce themselves to one another and the organisation presents information to remind the board about its activities and accomplishments and any new developments then little time is left for real feedback or discussion. Organisations should and usually do try to ensure there is ample time for discussion, but often over-program meetings in ways that little time is actually left for feedback. It doesn’t help to send a questionnaire or email soliciting further feedback, as the organisation will only hear what there is time to communicate during the meeting.
This is one reason why online meetings do not work nearly as well as personal face-to-face meetings of a board. Recent experience during the pandemic suggests that more advisors can attend an online meeting, which is one of the best features of meeting online. However, most in person meetings are able to embed meaningful but informal communication around the event, such as a dinner or site visits. These occasions enable individuals to clarify their assessments, time for people to get over their differences of opinion and ‘makeup’, and for the group to gain a better sense of its value to and support by the organisation.
4. Advice is difficult to give and to receive.
It is common for board members to provide very general feedback that recognises the accomplishments documented by the material communicated to the members and validating the challenges the organisation has identified. In 1995, I put together a document for the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) that I directed which was entitled a “A Profile of Research and Publications 1995”. My key aim in compiling this was to communicate the incredible range and quality of research projects and publications that the PICT centres had completed. I was delighted when the board noted that we had done a great deal over the span of the project – they were impressed as they had not seen this pulled together until this report. It was 120 pages jammed packed with information about our work and its impact. So the members simply acknowledging the productivity and quality of the programme was exactly the feedback I had hoped for. Very simple.
Too often, as a member of a board, I can get carried away with a perceived need to provide advice, partly, I am sure, as a reflection of commonly being asked to review books, articles, or proposals, when critical comment is genuinely requested. But an organisation probably does not want a review of its report to the board and most advice we could give is already known by the organisation. As above, they know more than the board about the strengths and weaknesses of their organisation. So I try to prioritise what I have to offer in case I have a very limited time to speak – what would be my one idea.
Nevertheless, organisations need to listen and accept that they have asked for advice in creating an advisory board. So do not be surprised if you get advice you don’t want to hear. There is no need to take the advice. More than likely it is something that should have been considered before, but it is always worth understanding what the advisor is seeing and saying, and asking why particular advice was given and whether it is an idea for the leadership to kill, further discuss, develop, or possibly better deal with in your communication about the organisation’s project(s).
5. Advise and forget.
Finally, despite all I have said above, it is entirely fair and appropriate for any member of an advisory board to give any feedback that seems useful for the board member to convey. In my opinion, as a board member, you really should not worry about how it is received or whether it will be well received. Some may regard your advice as simplistic, wrong, old-fashioned, patronising, ill-informed, or in any other way, unhelpful. But that is not your problem. You are simply responding to what you’ve read and heard and think important to communicate. That is what you volunteered your time to do, so board members really can’t afford to second guess whether to communicate what they’ve gathered from the material. It is the option of the organisation to take or leave your advice. If your feedback is unhelpful, such as in misunderstanding what the organisation has done, then they need to do a better job in communicating their work or in selecting advisors.
In conclusion, and to be fair, the aim of any member of an advisory board is not simply to give advice. People join an advisory board because they have been asked, or because they want to keep up with the field, support an organisation, or meet other members of the board – network, or you name it. In commenting on this blog, a colleague put it this way: “In addition to giving advice, I see the board’s role as providing a web of professional networks that create an additional resource for the organisation. Advisory board members should use their networks for a variety of functions, such as raising visibility, distributing information about outputs or vacancies, and helping organizational leaders establish contacts.”
Given these potential payoffs, I’ve found every advisory board I’ve served on to have been beneficial in many ways, both personally and professionally.
Is there another principle I should add to this list?
On 30 January 2021, Professor Jay George Blumler died at his home in Leeds. His family was with him in the last days of his 96 years. Over the last several months following his death, many beautiful tributes have conveyed the love and admiration of his family, friends and colleagues for one of the world’s leading scholars in the field of Political Communication – an American born, but British-based theorist of communication and media. Jay was active for nearly all his academic career at the School of Media and Communication at Leeds University, but he had many ties with colleagues and academic institutions around the world, including the University of Maryland and the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, where I met him in the early 1980s.
I will point you to some of the many tributes to Jay, which wonderfully capture his life and work in more detail and in the words of those he worked with throughout his career. At one of the last tributes given for the members of the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), six world class scholars in the communication field commemorated his life and work, including Lance Bennett, Nico Carpentier, Stephen Coleman, Mark Deuze, Sonia Livingstone, and Claudia Mellado. While each was a leader in their own field, each noted Jay’s role as a valued mentor to them. I could hardly believe that I knew of the work of all six initially through Jay. It seemed as if early in every visit I had with Jay, whether he or I was getting off a bus, train or plane, he would without fail call my attention to the work of some promising new scholar of communication he had met, and whom I should follow. My colleagues could not have had a better mentor and scholarly promoter. I could easily say that Jay was proud of each of them. He truly was. He was absolutely buoyed by the success of his colleagues.
That brings me to one personal reflection I would add to the many tributes: Jay Blumler found real joy in academia. He found delight in all aspects of the academic enterprise. Many mentioned how he never failed to ask a penetrating but incisive and constructive question at seminars. He’d be in the front row and raring to join the discussion. But in so many different situations and interactions, Jay was able to creatively construct a fun and valuable occasion.
For example, whenever I asked him to comment on a draft paper or outline, I came to realize that I would not just get a quick sign of approval or a few recommended citations. To the contrary, I would get an invitation to tea or a meal at which he would bring his notes and we would speak for hours about my work and how it could be refined, rethought, better conceptualised, and tied to earlier work. He constructed such tutorials in ways that not only contributed to my work but educated and entertained me and anyone nearby. He initiated me to this process in the early 1980s when we co-edited a book, with Ken Kraemer, entitled Wired Cities, about how networking communities would have major social implications. He made that such an enjoyable experience and such a better book.
That was just one example. Those in academia know that being asked to comment on a paper or book can be seen as a burden. It can be an occasion when many academics would not bother to respond or offer a quick reply. Many – including myself on occasion – are often too busy and too seriously focused on their own work to be distracted by helping a colleague. Not Jay.
Jay would make what could have been a burdensome task into an enjoyable experience that was socially and educationally memorable. Maybe even a nice meal at a new restaurant. He enjoyed himself in the process and that joy infused his colleagues with greater enthusiasm to refine their own work and also to spare more time for those seeking their help, having learned from Jay’s example.
This is not to say that Professor Blumler was not aware of the slings and arrows of academic criticism and one-upmanship. As a theorist in his field, his work was highly visible and the subject of critiques as well as praise, such as around his pioneering work with Elihu Katz and others on the uses and gratifications of the media. While critics never seemed to hurt his feelings, they could make him cross. But he was seldom if ever angry, as he seemed to be able to focus on the work and those colleagues he admired rather than fretting about those he did not. I never recall him criticising or dismissing any academic. Instead, he championed those he most respected and whose work he followed most closely.
Jay is famous for adding a song to his keynotes or seminar talks. He loved to sing and had a wonderful baritone voice. But that is just another one of many ways in which Jay found and spread joy in academia. He made academia a better place for all those who knew him.
Looking into one of my College’s hallway recycling bins, as one does, I found a fourth edition paperback of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Arguably, for my generation, as Strunk died the year before I was born, this has been one of the most useful and inspiring books for any young writer or anyone seriously interested in writing.
Online Micro-Choices Shaping Remote Seminars, Teaching, and Learning
The move to online education has been a huge shift, dramatically hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the existence of technical options, such as online meeting platforms like Zoom and Teams. For decades, handwringing and resistance over moves toward more online instruction, seminars, and lectures has collapsed as universities not only accept this shift but are supporting if not requiring it. In many respects, the move online has saved many educational institutions and the new normal – whatever that ends up being – is almost certain to incorporate more online teaching and learning.
However, after participating in many online seminars, lectures, and conferences, I sense that it is time to focus far more attention on the micro-choices being made about the conduct of online teaching and learning. Not focus on on or off-line, but how to do online teaching and learning.
There are books on teaching tips for graduate students and instructors, but fewer for the online world. That said, I imagine that most academics tend to follow the examples set by their own best teachers. Unfortunately, in the online world of education, there are fewer great examples on which developing teachers can model themselves. Moreover, I believe I am seeing so many problematic examples and trends emerging that the micro-choices underpinning them merit more critical discussion.
Take for example, the decision on whether or not to mute the audio and turn off the video of the audience – whether students or fellow colleagues. The convenor of an online session, such as over Zoom, can mute everyone but the speaker and turn off everyone’s video but the speaker’s video, or they can simply ask everyone but the speaker to mute their own audio and turn off their video while the speaker or teacher is presenting. Who has permission to share their screen is another micro-choice of a convenor.
Screen sharing enables people to show a slide or a graph or any image or text that they can put on their own screen to the group. For a small seminar with known participants, everyone can be enabled to share their screen. If open to the public and if a larger group is brought together, screen sharing needs to be restricted to avoid problems such as Zoombombing, such as a malicious user sharing a vulgar image. But it is easy to keep the meeting link to those invited, use passwords to join, and restrict screen sharing to avoid such possible problems.
Muting everyone’s audio during a presentation seems to be good practice as well. You avoid unplanned sounds in households, like the sounds of barking dogs and crying babies, from interrupting a seminar. And individuals normally have a means to raise their hand to ask a question or make a comment, so they can be unmuted when speaking. That said, if it is a small group discussion, such as following a lecture, I think individuals should decide on their own whether to mute, such as if their dog starts barking, but generally remain unmuted to be as interactive as possible during the discussion. When education is being socially distanced in so many ways by going online, any opportunities to enhance sociality and interaction online should be seriously considered.
In contrast, in my opinion, stopping everyone’s video is not a good practice. Unfortunutely, I see this a becoming a trend. In the earliest weeks and months of the pandemic and online meetings, people tended to be visible online all the time even when their audio is muted. With my video on, you could see if I was on the call and that I was listening or if I was multitasking. If I had to leave or take a break, I could switch to a still photo of me or my initials, until I was ready to engage again. More importantly, the speakers would know that they were speaking to real, live, human beings, rather than talking to themselves in a dark room.
Over time, it is clear that more universities and conferences are moving to shut off the video of the audiences, and only have video streaming on for the speaker or the panelists. Often this means that no one is visible as the speaker is presenting slides – such as when talking behind the slides occupying center stage. Once a critical proportion of the audience starts shutting off their video, then others feel pressured to as well, lest they be accused of perceiving themselves as too self-important. But it is for others, not for yourself, that it is good to be seen.
I have taken issue with this minimalist approach to limiting video on the basis that it takes social distancing to an unacceptable and unjustifiable limit. Of course, I’ve heard justifications, such as maintaining the focus on the material on the slides and keeping people from being distracted by the images of audience members. Protecting the privacy of individuals and households is another. There are many ways to protect privacy of the listeners, such as by using a virtual background or sitting in front of a blank wall. Nevertheless, I find such justifications to be weak rationales for avoiding social interaction.
Teaching or lecturing is not simply about transferring information. If that were so, a reading or video recording would be superior to a seminar. Most importantly, teaching or lecturing is about motivating the audience – students or colleagues – to see your topic as important and interesting and worthy of reading and learning more about. That means you need to engage them in the presentation and make sure they are engaged. In the classroom, you can tell if students are not engaged, even if – as was the case in many in-person classes – many are pressed against the back row of seats. You can see if the audience is engaged online as well, but only if you keep the video going both ways.
Also, you need to motivate the lecturer. Unless you are very shy or nervous about public speaking, I can’t think of what could be more deflating that speaking to a set of initials or a blank screen or simply reading your own slides. Cut off the video and you risk disengaging the speaker as well as the audience.
Obviously, I am a cranky, old colleague, easily annoyed, and opinionated. Fine if you disagree with my suggestions, but you should really think through these many micro-choices you make in presenting and speaking and listening online. Discuss them with those convening any seminar where you are presenting.
I accept and defend the right of teachers to present material to their classes in the ways they choose – assuming they are within an increasing set of rules and guidelines set by educational institutions. Similarly, lecturers or speakers should be free to present in ways in which they are comfortable. But be careful that you don’t undermine your ability to engage, educate, and entertain your audience simply by following bad practices set by colleagues that are too cautious or conservative about the issues that might arise from social interaction. Don’t handicap yourself by speaking to an invisible audience or supporting any idea that being invisible is a good idea in online teaching or learning that is engaging.
I began graduate studies in the Department of Political Science at the University of Buffalo in 1969 when UB was called the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY-Buffalo). I had graduated from the University of Missouri at Columbia, where I was inspired by a comparative researcher, Professor David M. Wood, to pursue graduate study in political science. The COVID-19 pandemic and the turmoil it has caused reminded me of when I was at UB amid all the disruptions and student strikes on campus during the Vietnam (American) War. Dramatically different periods and problems, but somehow reminiscent.
My cohort arrived at the interim Ridge Lea Campus – a complex of single-story buildings in Amherst. At one point, I remember some were literally buried completely under heavy snow, causing the cancelling of some exams. While I never experienced the new Amherst campus, I had the benefit of fabulous faculty in the process of building a new department.
Professor Lester Milbrath, and his ladder of political participation and his turn to environmental research; philosopher of science Professor Paul Diesing with his focus on what scientists actually do; and urban politics Professor Donald Rosenthal, who introduced me to Banfield and Wilson and case studies of Chicago politics, have all passed away. However, they and other faculty, such as James Stimson, who left UB and is now the Raymond Dawson Distinguished Bicentennial Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, were such models of intellect, rigor and integrity that they continue to represent the department for me. And Professor Rudolf Wildenmann, even as a Visiting Professor in the Department from the University of Mannheim, were critical to my work. I almost joined him at Mannheim in 1973.
Of course, I also continue to value my fellow students. Coming from the Midwest, my first days of graduate studies were intimidating, but students quickly formed a supportive community. I have fond memories of meeting other students, such as Debbie Dunkle and Steve Peterson, who’ve become lifelong friends. We would meet for coffee and breakfast almost every morning in the Ridge Lea cafeteria. One highlight of our conversations was the frequent occasion when any of the grad students received a rejection letter. They would read it out loud for the group to compare and critique. Whenever a student is worried about a job, I tell them about our stacks of rejections, which I continue to find amusing.
At UB, I focused on urban and comparative politics but also on methods and quantitative data analyses, toting boxes of punch cards around and spending so much time at the central computing center submitting jobs on the big mainframe. SPSS was only being launched while I was a graduate student. I recall colleagues distrusting such software packages as they were too far removed from our own programming. I am sure that my affinity for data analysis created the opportunities I had to work with faculty – so central to my training – but also was key to my move into the study of the political aspects of computing.
My focus today is on Internet studies, most often from a political perspective. The field did not exist when I was in graduate school. In fact, I worked only about one year in a department of political science in my first job at the University of South Florida. Nevertheless, the ideas, theories and methods that I was introduced to at UB have remained central aspects of my work to this day. At every stage of my career, I felt UB had prepared me as well as any of my colleagues for the challenges of research and teaching. I thank the department for whatever success I’ve enjoyed in my career.
William H. Dutton, Emeritus Professor, University of Southern California and Oxford University
Professor Claude Welch
One of the University of Buffalo’s (UB) most outstanding professors, Claude Welch, began his career at UB in 1964 – before my arrival when UB became SUNY-Buffalo – and only recently retired as SUNY Distinguished Service Professor. Professor Welch has been putting together a history of UB’s Department of Political Science and reaching out to former graduate students for their own memories of their days at UB. I never had a class with Claude, but regret missing that opportunity. He has chaired or been a member of an amazing number of dissertation committees, and is one of the few professors I know of who has had a video produced to recognise him as a gifted teacher, entitled ‘Calling it a Career‘.
My thanks to Claude Welch for putting together his history of the department and reaching out to former students like myself. It made me realise how seldom I stop to recognise those who tried to teach me what political scientists do. But I’ve always appreciated their contributions to my education.
Universities are in the process of telling faculty, students, parents, and the larger public about how they intend to respond to the pandemic of COVID-19. Many decisions have been taken about how classes will be held in the coming academic year. In this context, educators are discussing how they expect all the various actors and stakeholders to respond to different strategies and what this means for the future of higher education. Is this crisis an opportunity for fast tracking the sector to more efficient and affordable approaches to education, if not a major shift to online learning, or are we witnessing an inevitable train wreck for the future of higher education? Alternatively, will most institutions choose to muddle through this pandemic before reverting to more conventional approaches. Simply search online for ‘COVID-19 and the future of higher education’ and you will find a large number of articles, interviews, and opinion pieces.
I have retired from university teaching and administration. Nevertheless, after decades of teaching and working in higher education, and with a long-term interest and research in online learning and education (Dutton and Loader 2002), I have been concerned about the challenges of moving online and have tried to track unfolding developments and reflect on what should be done.
In following this sector, I have been seriously impressed with the significant steps that have been taken by many universities. Some moved their recent graduation ceremonies completely online albeit many of these institutions promise to invite students back for the real thing in the future. Some universities have chosen to move to online courses completely or to varying degrees in various scenarios of blended or hybrid approaches to delivering courses. And a number are offering more choices to students, such as to defer, take their courses online, offer hybrid (online and in class), or physically attend classes that respect social distancing. All these options are approached in the midst of uncertainty over whether fewer or more domestic and international students will want to attend classes, be able to take online courses, live on campus, and pay the going rates of tuition.
My main concern in following these developments is the need to learn from this real-world, natural experiment occurring right before our eyes. At a recent online discussion of the transformation of the classroom in higher education, there was an observation of one panelist that captured a shared sense that very little systematic empirical research is being done to track and assess developments. If that is true, then an ambitious research agenda needs to be developed as soon as possible.
There has already been reporting on early experiences with online education in the aftermath of face-to-face teaching of courses being discontinued at nearly all levels of education, immediately following the spread of COVID-19. There are early predictions of likely financial and pedagogical implications. And many discussions within and across disciplines about how to teach online. But more systematic empirical research on actual impacts needs to be undertaken. So, my major point is that this is the time to capture the lessons being learned by higher educational institutions over the coming year, initially by developing a strong research agenda.
For a start, educators should be talking to those at innovative institutions of higher education. Even quite traditional universities, such as Oxford, have been doing online education, such as through their Department of Continuing Education. They have over 90 online courses, and some of the first were philosophy courses, where I was surprised to learn that discussion forums worked exceptionally well. There are also online universities, for example, and universities that have been founded and have years of experience in remote or distance education, such as a set of open universities like the Open University of Catalonia(Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) and the first Open University which is based in the UK. Can we learn from them?
I had an opportunity to sit down with two current and former faculty members of the UK’s Open University, based in Milton Keynes. Established in 1969, the OU has been focused on teaching part-time, mature students, studying alongside adult commitments of work and family, not necessarily with traditional school educational backgrounds, who cannot or choose not to attend traditional campus-based universities. They were able to share lessons learned over the years in an institution that was designed for remote learning, often using broadcasting and the mail for course materials, with a large number of part-time tutors supporting students in small groups, including marking and commenting on each individual’s course work. Now materials and tuition are largely delivered online, although most qualifications will include the option of a limited number of face-to-face sessions.
They know the challenges of online and other remote teaching and learning, such as the difficulties of synchronous sessions when many are in the workplace or involved with child-care. They have learned and responded to the expectations of today’s students for multiple media in presentations, including not only text but pictures, case studies, videos, games, audio recordings, virtual laboratories and more, although varied by the course and appropriate to the discipline. There is no such thing as one form of online class, when how teachers approach a chemistry class will be very different from a math or from a philosophy course.
The OU has dealt for decades with issues of accessibility given the mode of teaching and learning, which campus-based universities would have to address if more of their teaching was done online. And the OU and other open universities have found it critical for teams rather than individuals to build courses, given the different skill sets required for the content and its delivery. Traditional campus-based courses are still delivered primarily by one faculty member, possibly with teaching assistants, rather than a team with multiple backgrounds.
More importantly, given the range of approaches taken by over four thousand universities (degree-granting post-secondary institutions) in the USA alone, this coming academic year should provide an unparalleled opportunity to discover what works well across different kinds of courses and institutions. There will still be problems with such issues as self-selection, with universities making decisions on whether to go online or follow other models. However, this is a common problem of comparative research that should not prevent strong studies.
Hopefully, major research councils should be calling for grant research on the impact of changes underway in higher education. Surely this is being done, but I have not run across major empirical research projects in this area. Universities might be good at doing research, but very few institutions are good at critically researching themselves. They are in a competitive enterprise. That said, education departments at major universities around the world must see this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to study the impact of major innovations in higher education. And there is a small set of academics with a focus on online and educational innovations that could step up to meet this need.
In short, the conversation should quickly be shifting from how universities will respond to this crisis to the development of empirical research on what different universities have chosen to do, how these strategies were actually implemented, and with what impact on learning, education, and the larger institution. This is not a new set of questions for the field, but this is an unprecedented opportunity to gain systematic empirical evidence from field research and interviews with those at the leading-edge of (mass) remote teaching. It is not too late to be focusing on the development of an ambitious research agenda for education post COVID-19. I cannot think of a more important focus for researchers with experience and a focus on learning and education.
Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.
 A colleague participated in a two-day conference on ‘teaching and learning mathematics online’ sponsored by three relevant learned societies for maths and stats. It included about 500 people who attended on a registered basis, with another 30 or 40 joining on particular session via YouTube. About 1000 are following it up in some formal way. See: http://talmo.uk/
 My thanks to Lindsey Court, a Staff Tutor and Senior Lecturer in the OU’s School of Computing & Communications; and Derek Goldrei, an OU Honorary Associate, retired as Staff Tutor and Senior Lecturer in Mathematics, formerly Deputy Director of the Undergraduate Maths Programme, who is also an Emeritus Fellow of Mansfield College at Oxford University.
The COVID-19 pandemic has driven the Internet and related social media and digital technologies to the forefront of societies across the globe. Whether in supporting social distancing, working at home, or online courses, people are increasingly dependent on online media for everyday life and work. If you are teaching courses on the social aspects of the Internet, social media, and life or work in the digital age, you might want to consider a reader that covers many of the key technical and social issues.
Please take a look at the contents of the 2nd Edition of Society and the Internet (OUP 2019), which is available in paperback and electronic editions. Information about the book is available online here.
Whether you are considering readings for your Fall/Autumn courses, or simply have an interest in the many social issues surrounding digital media, you may find this book of value. From Manuel Castells’ Foreword to Vint Cerf’s concluding chapter, you find a diverse mix of contributions that show how students and faculty can study the social shaping and societal implications of digital media.
In addition to Manuel Castells and Vint Cerf along with the editors, our contributors include: Maria Bada, Grant Blank, Samantha Bradshaw, David Bray, Antonio A. Casilli, Sadie Creese, Matthew David, Laura DeNardis, Martin Dittus, Elizabeth Dubois, Laleah Fernandez, Sandra González-Bailón, Scott Hale, Eszter Hargittai, Philip N. Howard, Peter John, Silvia Majó Vázquez, Helen Margetts, Marina Micheli, Christopher Millard, Lisa Nakamura, Victoria Nash, Gina Neff, Eli Noam, Sanna Ojanperä, Julian Posada, Anabel Quan-Hasse, Jack Linchuan, Lee Raine, Bianca Reisdorf, Ralph Schroeder, Limor Shifman, Ruth Shillair, Greg Taylor, Hua Wang, Barry Wellman, and Renwen Zhang. Together, these authors offer one of the most useful and engaging collections on the social aspects of the Internet and related digital media available for teaching.
Thanks for your own work in this field, at an incredible period of time for Internet and new media studies of communication and technology.
In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, with so many organizations and activities moving online, I’ve seen a remarkable push to ‘professionalize’ [for want of a better word] everything online. You might think that is a good thing, but to me, it is undermining, if not destroying, the free and open culture of the Internet. For example, I can sit down and draft a blog and post it in seconds without fear with the hope that a few people besides myself might enjoy it. It’s fun to share ideas and issues.
Increasingly I hear colleagues talking about doing an event online in a more ‘professional’ way. They want high production value, even though they are shooting a talk, not a major motion picture, or an interview for a major news channel. They need all the organisational trappings, corporate logos, and branding down to the right font.
Of course, I whine, protest, and argue that it is okay to relax a bit online – it can be more ‘Internety’ and that is fine – that is what is special about the Internet and social media. But that does not translate well for those trying to move their professional organizations, meetings, marketing, outreach, courses, and more onto the Internet – and they are bulldozing the culture of the Internet as they do.
I also see the consequences of this transition in my inbox. Email is increasingly dominated by messages from institutions, organizations, campaigns, candidates, and news organizations dressed in all their corporate style guides. Instead of a serious letter sent by snail mail on corporate letterhead, I get more emails with the image of a serious letter on corporate letterhead attached. It is like telemarketing has moved onto the Internet big time, giving me so much to delete before reading.
This invasion of professionalism into all the nooks and crannies of the Internet brings to mind the late John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence. Every year I gain more respect for his vision in his 1996 ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, which you can read here: https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence If he were alive today, he would be so disappointed.