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  • Ben Whitaker

Higher Education and the “New Normal

“The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.”

Edward Gibbon

I am old enough to remember a time when the pubs closed at three in the afternoon and when people used to stand at the end of a cinema show for the national anthem. Times change. As we emerge from the confines of our bedrooms and kitchens into the “new normal”, some things will have vanished forever, just like the shops closing early on a Wednesday afternoon. One such thing will be the future of higher education.

I cannot imagine ever returning to being a talking book and standing at the front of a large lecture theatre containing a hundred and fifty students, delivering a discourse on the intrinsic quantum mechanical nature of the chemical bond or the transition state theory of chemical reactivity. A pity in some ways, as after years of practice I was beginning to think I was getting pretty good at it (although I’m sure that not all the audience agreed). These last fifteen or so months have seen profound changes to the way in which University education is delivered. These changes were necessarily forced on the sector by the need to socially distance etc. and required a rapid response to “flip” course delivery to an online model, but I don’t think we will now ever go back to the old ways of doing things. And in a number of ways this is probably a jolly good thing.

I hear howls of protest from some students, who argue that this is not what they signed up for and who resent paying large fees (in reality, vast debts that in many cases will never be paid off in the future indentured labour market). There are protests too from some of my colleagues who were happy with the old style of teaching, since after the initial effort of scribbling out a few notes, all that was required of them was to reel off the same old stuff year on year. It has been a huge effort to rapidly develop on-line teaching materials. Not all of it has worked and colleagues are still learning how to tweak delivery and content to create effective teaching resources, but when it works the results have been transformational. It is true that some things really didn’t work. Particularly, on-line “tutorials” over Microsoft Teams and Zoom, and, in the future, a “blended” model, mixing on-line material (to deliver the didactic elements) and face-to-face in-person meetings to review and explore the nuances, will surely become the norm.

The extraordinary rapid response to develop an on-line teaching program, as our campuses became tumbleweed strewn ghost-towns (although here, at least as far as I am aware, with no feral goats), and the pandemic forced us, as University teachers, to re-examine the purpose and nature of higher education. It is true that not all colleagues have embraced the opportunity but the vast majority have and, in my opinion, the quality of teaching and learning in Universities in the years ahead will benefit as a result. We are still feeling our way and there are bound to be some hiccups along the way. For example, at my university, we are unlikely to return to formal sit-down examinations for quite some time, and while I find that the longer format and access to on-line and off-line resources that the OTLA (online teach, learning and assessment) examination format allows the possibility to set more problem solving and open-ended questions, it may not prove so popular with students.

The move to a blended learning environment will, I think, make our courses more interesting but also more challenging. Personally, I think that this is what higher education is meant to be about but over the last couple of decades we have drifted towards a more utilitarian, “sausage-machine”, delivery model of mass education. The “new normal” offers us a real opportunity to challenge that mentality and to better serve the new generation. Whether or not that approach is what students (our customers) or the government (our paymasters) really want, is another matter altogether.

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