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No, the future of higher education is not online

For Simon Harper, predictions of an online or blended future for higher education post Covid-19 ignore the fast-moving pivot to distributed work.
This article is more than 3 years old

Simon is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Manchester.

The future of higher education is not online.

In a post-Covid-19 world, that statement seems a little counter-intuitive, but it’s true. The future is not “online”, it is not “remote”, and it is not “distance”.

Just as modern work has moved past telecommuting and remote working, so teaching and learning will need to move past a millennium mindset of remote, online, and distance. Indeed, talking about online learning is as redundant as saying “electronic computer”.

An evenly distributed future

Modern work is increasingly becoming distributed, which promotes the “what” and not the “how”; a style which does not expect co-presence, synchronicity, or dependency, and is not opaque. These are subtle but important distinctions but ones that are necessary to embrace if we are to move beyond the economic threats to HE of Covid-19. To focus on the platform as the solution is to fundamentally miss-understanding that it is a mindset change that is required if we are to make lasting changes that will benefit students, staff, and the institution.

Just as the future of work is not about the method of delivery or presentation, so the future of learning will not be about the virtual learning environment (VLE). It will not be about how the materials get to the recipient and it will not be about where that recipient is. The answers do not lay in the platforms we use to distribute, or present, our materials, and there is no one size fits all solution – just a range of appropriate platforms which place communication and community building over material delivery, and the mechanics of assignment handling.

Distributed learning is about a mindset change which does not favour those learners who are co-present and does not explicitly divide resources into face-to-face and distance; as does blended learning. To be distributed you must first be agnostic as to the location of the student. Distributed is about presence – and if it’s about presence then we must promote communication and community.

Admittedly, distributed work just sounds like another buzz-term created to sell pop-professional books, but it’s a model which has been around for 20 years and is based on good computer-supported cooperative work research. This distributed mindset has become increasingly popular, with industry leaders trying to make their companies less fragile to the problems of geo-location and global uncertainty. The most vocal exponent of the paradigm is Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic (WordPress, Tumblr, Gravitar, Longreads..) with a staff of 1200 all working as a distributed entity.

What is “distributed work”?

Put simply, distributed work:

reaches beyond the restrictions of a traditional office environment. A distributed workforce is dispersed geographically over a wide area – domestically or internationally but may comprise on-site teams at one or more office locations as well as remote employees who work from home, coworker spaces or public spaces or on the go.”

These workers may be co-present or remote at different times and for different tasks and so the task and materials must: be location agnostic, enhance autonomy, be transparent where possible, and expect asynchronous communication.

The distributed paradigm comprises two key aspects: asynchronicity and location agnosticism. These sound straightforward, but together they make for an enhanced work experience, and so may well provide an enhanced learning experience.

Asynchronicity is critical to the distributed model because by adopting it we do not presuppose the requirement for co-presence or synchronised exposure to the material. The online world still designs a course as a logical sequence of lectures and practical activities which build one on the next into a kind-of hierarchy of learning. However, in a distributed world which increases a student’s autonomy, you may not be able to dictate the order in which a student experiences the material.

Student autonomy and the end of synchronicity

We have to become comfortable with students not following the path we have laid out for them, and focus on the endpoint. If the student completes their task – which is learning the material and sensibly thinking about it – then the learning outcomes you have set for them have been achieved. Indeed asynchronicity enhances autonomy, which is critical in a distributed world. And autonomy increases engagement, commitment and overall satisfaction (in a workforce).

But in the context of learning, it does mean that a student can’t be expected to follow the pathway you have set out for them. They may well approach the work in a different way, and we need to acknowledge that their circumstances will, to some extent, dictate the way they interact with the totality of the learning experience you have planned.

A distributed mindset creates all resources and plans for all interactions in a location-agnostic way. If a team is primarily physically working together (co-presence) workers at distance can also be included, location related clusters may also be present. One thing is quite clear – the distributed mindset values co-presence equally to a remote location in that it does not expect either and is, therefore, “antifragile” to presence. This said the presence requirements for learning materials need to then be explicitly considered. By a re-analysis of the intended learning outcomes in relation to the material, you will be able to look for barriers and assumptions which prevent those outcomes especially in terms of co-presence, co-temporality, simultaneity, sequentiality, and reviewability.

Still time to get together

One final thing to consider is simply that a distributed model values co-present social interactions. Indeed, even Automattic expects their teams to meet face-to-face for a total of four weeks a year; and acknowledges that distributed does not equal remote as exemplified by their annual “Grand Meetup”. There are many aspects of the learning journey that happen outside of the formal lecture. Student discussions in the refectory, or serendipitous meetings on corridors, peer support on the way to the lecture (or the coffee shop).

Sometimes the best experiences cannot be provided at a distance and “social grease” or “conversational bookends” become even more important for social cohesion when they are limited. In terms of international students, the co-present cultural experience is in some cases as important as the formal educational ones.

Learning how we might transplant the concept of distributed work to distributed learning is a journey we must take together, but it is a journey we must make if we are to successfully navigate the world beyond Covid-19.

12 responses to “No, the future of higher education is not online

  1. Excellent article. It seems increasingly that asynchronicity is going to be something that we all have to get to grips with. And perhaps even benefit from. (Even though I have to admit, shamefacedly, that I’d never even heard the word until about six weeks ago…)

  2. some interesting points but the notion of ‘pathways’ is most unhelpful to processes of learning in which the learner is seen as a constructor of their learning, with that learning varying across a group in terms of its type as well as extent. If learning in education can be seen usefully as a process of creating patterns, teaching (or the design of a learning experience) can lead to far more than one pattern. I refer to ‘education’ to mark a contrast with ‘training’, while recognising that forms of knowledge do vary across disciplines

  3. How refreshing to have these distinctions laid out such that the challenges for the learning experience and the relationship between the learning communities of teachers and students can critically rethink their positioning and those professional services that underpin the student experience can be shaped to support these conditions. The socialisation of learning and physical distancing and asynchronous circumstances can be brought together.

  4. Great piece, I agree. I suggest that there’s plenty of evidence on the benefits of synchronicity. I would disagree that we’re facing the end of it – far from it. Online or in f2f mode, real-time sessions provide cohesion, motivation and critically, a sense of belonging, all of which are key to a meaningful and sustainable learning process. High synchronicity (even with low proximity) plays a big role in student engagement, participation and success. However, in cases where synchronous sessions are simply used to “deliver content to students” (which some people confuse with “teaching”), I’d be glad to see the end of synchronicity.

  5. Hi Alejandro, indeed I’d agree to an extent, however I think we often over-focus on synchronous communications and presence even when that is not required and in some cases detrimental. But I do agree that we still need synchronicity for certain things just as I’m convinced we also need co-presence. Herbert H. Clark and Susan E. Brennan have interesting papers on this in Communication theory.

  6. Hi Roger, I think it depends, in many cases part of the course or programme cannot be fully comprehended without a basis in a another aspect of it. I think it depends on the topic being studied.

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