COVID-19 and the Future of Higher Education

Time to Develop an Ambitious Research Agenda

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.[1] 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. 

via voices.com

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[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] There are early predictions of likely financial and pedagogical implications. And many discussions within and across disciplines about how to teach online.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]  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.    

Reference

Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

Notes   

[1] A few examples are described in a recent article in The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/presidents-panel-how-covid-19-will-change-higher-education-136931

[2] https://billdutton.me/2020/04/13/social-distancing-education/

[3] The steps taken by a few universities are described by an article in The Conversation of 2 July: https://theconversation.com/presidents-panel-how-covid-19-will-change-higher-education-136931

[4] Here is a thoughtful set of reflections from Scientific Americanhttps://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/online-learning-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

[5] 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/

[6] https://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/public-courses

[7] 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.

A Research Agenda for Digital Politics

My edited book within the Elgar Research Agendas Series will be out shortly. Its entitled A Research Agenda for Digital Politics, and aims to stimulate innovative research on the role of digital media and communication in the study of politics.

“This Elgar Research Agenda showcases insights from leading researchers on the charged issues and questions that lie ahead in the multidisciplinary field of digital politics. Covering the political implications of the Internet, social media, datafication and computational analytics, it looks to the future of how research might address the political challenges of the digital age and maps the key emerging trends in this field.”

I hope you can recommend the book to your librarian or research unit and consider this volume for your courses. Those with a serious interest in the political implications of digital and social media will find it valuable in considering their own directions for future research.

Contributors include Nick Anstead at the LSE, Jay G. Blumler at Leeds, Andrew Chadwick at Loughborough, Stephen Coleman at Leeds, Alexi Drew at King’s College London, Elizabeth Dubois at Ottawa, Leah Fernandez at Michigan State University, Heather Ford at UT Sydney, M. I. Franklin at Goldsmiths, Paolo Gerbaudo at King’s College London, Dave Karpf at George Washington University, Leah Lievrouw at UCLA, Wan-Ying LIN at City University of Hong Kong, Florian Martin-Bariteau at Ottawa, Declan McDowell-Naylor at Cardiff University, Giles Moss at Leeds, Ben O’Loughlin at Royal Holloway, Patricia Rossini at Un of Liverpool, Volker Schneider at University of Konstanz, Lone Sorensen at Huddersfield, Scott Wright at University of Melbourne, and Xinzhi ZHANG at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Thank you again, Lord Ashdown

Lord Ashdown died on 22 December 2018 at 77 years of age, and was buried in Somerset this week on 10 January 2019. After serving as a Royal Marine, and serving years as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and an MP, his life has been celebrated by many.

It may seem small, but I can’t help but remember Paddy Ashdown for helping me and my colleagues by taking the time to speak at the last international conference of the Programme on Information & Communication Technologies (PICT) in 1995. The conference was entitled ‘The Social and Economic Implications of Information and Communication Technologies’, and was held at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London, from 10-12 May 1995.

The Rt. Hon Paddy Ashdown agreed to do the keynote of the conference, and he was joined by other parliamentarians, including John Battle, Kenneth Baker, Richard Caborn, Chris Smith, Ian Taylor and Sir Kenneth Warren. The event, and Paddy Ashdown’s keynote, was a capstone to one of the first social science research programmes focused on information and communication technologies, such as the Internet. It was sustained by two phases of research grants from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). I was national director of this programme during its last years, following earlier directors, Bill Melody and Nicky Gardner. It gave me the opportunity to work with such great colleagues as Martin Cave, Richard Collins, Rod Coombs, Jane (Yellowtrees) Douglas, David Edge, Wendy Faulkner, James Fleck, the late Chris Freeman, Nick Garnham, Andrew Gillespie, John Goddard, Leslie Haddon, Christine Hine, David Knights, Sonia Livingstone, Stuart Macdonald, Robin Mansell, Ian Miles, Geoff Mulgan, Hugh Willmott, Vince Porter, Paul Quintas, Kevin Robins, the late Roger Silverstone, Colin Sparks, John Taylor, Juliet Webster, Robin Williams, Steve Woolgar, and many many others.

PICT was a successful research programme that paved the way for a series of research programmes to follow on its heels and together make an incredible difference in the way people in the UK and worldwide think about the societal implications of the Internet and related information and communication technologies. I’m not sure if those who contribute their time and efforts to supporting academic research, as Paddy Ashdown did, realise how their contributions make a difference and are remembered. So thank you again, Lord Ashdown, for seeing the significance of what we were doing and supporting it with your presence – well before the significance of the new technologies were widely recognised.

Lord Paddy Ashdown

Wonderful Student Team on Study of Whiteboards at MSU

I am working with two of my masters students on a study of the issues that arose over whiteboards in the dormitories at MSU. The students presented their conclusions yesterday, and today they finish their paper. I’ll then work with their paper to develop a working paper that we might blog or disseminate in various ways. It was a fascinating and fun project is several ways. It was for a course on media and information policy, so this led us to quickly see the whiteboard as a media for communication and information. It is simple – everyone understands it, but it raises many of the same issues that are raised by social media and the Internet on college campuses. It also fits into the rising debate over speech on college campuses. Can’t wait to share our findings, which I believe to demonstrate the value of research in contrast to journalistic coverage of events such as the whiteboard controversy at MSU. It also really does speak to the issues of freedom of communication and civility in the university context.

Most importantly, it was a delight working with Irem Gokce Yildirim, an international student from Turkey, and Bingzhe Li, an international student from China, on this study of communication on an American campus. This is the kind of experience that makes teaching so enjoyable and rewarding.

[We are all laughing about my clumsy efforts to take this with my selfie stick.]

Irem, Bill, and Bingzhe

Killings Can Be Information (or Procedural) Disasters

In the aftermath of a rash of murders captured on mobile smartphones, and mass shootings of civilians and police officers, debate has focused on assigning blame. Videos from mobile smartphones provide some evidence for fueling such debate over who should be held responsible for any killing of a civilian or police officer. And these discussions most often move into a broader debate over major societal issues, such as institutional racism or mental healthcare, and policy issues, such as gun control. All these debates could be valuable and often constructive, and must take place. However, I seldom, if ever, hear discussions of procedural problems that led to what might be called a ‘information’ or ‘procedural’ disaster – that is, misinformation, or lack of information, or practices, that might have enabled the disaster (the killing) to unfold as it did.

Think back to airline hijackings. These could be viewed broadly, such as around issues of international relations and terrorism, but also, the analysis of these events can focus on procedures at airports and on airlines that can minimize the potential for a hijacking to take place. The changes in information gathered, and the procedures at airports and on planes post-hijacking episodes and post-9/11 are well known, and arguably have had a cumulative impact on reducing risks. But I don’t hear analogous discussions of mass shootings and other killings, even when there is video evidence, however limited, and many eyewitnesses in some cases. Perhaps the analysis of procedures is going on behind the scenes, but unbeknownst to me.

This comes to mind because of earlier research I explored around what we called ‘information disasters’.* We originally defined these disasters around the use of information technologies and telecommunications, such as when the USS Vincennes shot down a domestic Iran Air Flight 655 ascending in the Persian Gulf on 3 July 1987, mistaking it for an Iranian F-14 fighter descending towards the ship.

What most impressed me about the study of such disasters was the meticulous investigation of the unfolding events that led to each disaster. These studies often led to lessons that could be learned, such as practices or procedures could be changed.

This kind of study is not new. Our discussions often referred back to a long history of efforts to investigate accidents involving trains. Every train wreck, for example, is examined in great detail to determine what procedures, technical changes, or training could be implemented to avoid a similar type of disaster not only in the same location, but system wide. Train wrecks still occur, often with horrific consequences, but each incident can lead to changes that make the next incident less likely to occur.

http://abcnews.go.com/International/dead-dozens-injured-head-train-collision-italy/story?id=40509997
http://abcnews.go.com/International/dead-dozens-injured-head-train-collision-italy/story?id=40509997

It might well be possible to study these very unique circumstances surrounding each killing or mass shooting with a greater focus on addressing lessons learned about obtaining better and more timely information, or instituting new procedures or practices that would prevent a repeat of the sequence of events that led to particular disasters. One thing we learned from our review of a number of well-known information disasters was that they usually entailed many things going wrong. This does not mean that solutions are hopeless. To the contrary, if some problems can be fixed, many of these disasters might not have occurred.

I certainly would encourage more discussion of these issues, as they might be more successful than focusing on bigger and more long-term changes in society. Apologies if this is blindingly obvious, but I am not seeing the discussion that should be taking place.

*References

Dutton, W. H., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Peltu, M. (1995), Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunication Disasters. Policy Research Paper No. 33. Uxbridge: PICT, Brunel University.

Peltu, M., MacKensie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits’, pp. 177-95 in Dutton, W. H. (ed), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Quello Center Launch of Network Neutrality Impact (NNI) Study

On the day the FCC voted 3-2 for net neutrality rules, the Quello Center announced the launch of our ‘Net Neutrality Impact’ (NNI) study. After years of speculations and predictions about the implications of network neutrality, we will be able to study the actual consequences through a natural experiment created by the FCC’s ruling. So remember what you have claimed to the likely consequences of net neutrality, write them down, let us know, and follow our project at the Quello Center. Of course, we also welcome the involvement of other policy researchers who are as curious as we are about what will flow from this decision and how to capture these impacts in the most reliable and valid way.

Follow the project and the Quello Center on Twitter @QuelloCenter

See our announcement of the launch at: http://quello.msu.edu/launching-the-net-neutrality-impact-study/

Celebration of Net Neutrality Vote at FCC
Majority of FCC Celebrates Their Vote for Net Neutrality