The performance of learning is not higher education

David Manning argues that the promotion of higher order cognitive skills may be falling by the wayside in the rush to "online".

What is going on when university teachers are asked to change the way that they teach to meet the apparently unique demands of learning online in the context of the Covid-19 crisis?

One serious concern within the humanities is that an insidious process — already well under way — to transform higher education into the mere performance of learning will be hastened past the point of no return.

Once upon a time, the lecture was a fifty-minute example of the didactic method: it was a beginning, a stimulus, and a guide; it helped students acquire new knowledge and set them upon a course of learning to turn knowledge into understanding and then critical thought. Academic staff worked as critical pedagogues to nurture the student as they engaged with the dialectic method of learning through essential and optional readings, seminar and tutorial discussions, and formative and summative essays.

Now, students perceive the lecture as a one-stop-shop: something that should provide them with most, if not all, of what they need to know to undertake summative assignments. Independent study and seminar participation are typically viewed as complementary exercises in consolidating knowledge; however, the art of enabling, supporting, and promoting higher order cognitive skills is increasingly rendered superfluous.

Higher education is dying

There are at least three interrelated reasons why this is the case.

One, in being forced to participate in the government’s neo-liberal experiment in tertiary education, universities are now slaves to key performance indicators that engender continuous jeopardy within the league-table matrix. The propaganda of material necessity has gone hand-in-hand with that of modernisation and rationalisation to ensure that managerial pragmatism determines educational best practice.

The qualitative must be made quantitative or perish. So, teaching and learning in the Humanities is forced to relinquish its pedagogical principles to become a function of corporate sustainability.

Two, in an effort to respond to public demands that their education is “value for money”, universities have also convinced themselves that they need to undertake para-pedagogical programmes in inclusivity, engagement, enterprise, employability, etc. However laudable all this may be, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the more students and their teachers perform this new educational rite the less they actually participate in the real substance of higher education proper.

It is then a tragic irony that the very practices designed to show the worth of university learning are actually eviscerating its intrinsic value to students and society.

Three, as the government has turned students into consumers, universities have been forced to re-define what constitutes good teaching to meet the perceptions of the student body. Most of this constituency enter university already indoctrinated to perform learning for the express purpose of passing GCSE and A-level exams. Given these students know no different they want to hold university learning to account as if it were merely an extension of school learning.

This category mistake is no longer sufficiently challenged and overturned by universities because these institutions are bound to serve students as customers. Consequently, so-called higher education institutions are now existentially committed to perform non-higher education as they ingratiate themselves to student satisfaction.

Kids’ stuff

It is sometimes said that universities infantilize students. The deeper and more painful reality is that universities have come to infantilize themselves at the perverse behest of government, students, and the public. This trend is set to get worse with the latest shift to online learning.

Those vulnerable and aspiring universities that can ill afford to just muddle on through the Covid-19 crisis are mandating evangelists for online learning to provide immediate succour with a view to more long-lasting reforms in university education.

A new commitment to online learning promises to vanquish elitism and deliver engagement, enterprise, and employability. This move has remarkably little to do with pedagogy per se. In fact, it advances current trends in how to supplant higher education proper with a combination of para-pedagogical agendas and knowledge exchange activities.

To hasten this design, interested parties defy critical thinking in pedagogy to convince themselves that either online learning constitutes a distinct method of learning, when in principle it does not, or that the medium of learning should dictate the way that they teach, which in principle it should not. The “new normal” of 2020–21 could, therefore, remove any remaining principled attachment to didactic and dialectic learning.

The lecture is now set to be turned into an example of online asynchronous teaching. Inspiration is being taken from the world of public engagement where Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) champion five-minute online videos. Carrying this over to university education will bring about a final indignity upon the lecture: reducing it from an interpersonal experience of some fifty minutes to an impersonal clutch of pre-recorded five-minute episodes of knowledge content. Academic staff will be forced to complete their transformation from critical pedagogues into mere content providers before potentially sacrificing their jobs altogether.

The seminar, like the lecture, is now so last century. Why go through the rigmarole of preparing for and participating in rigorous dialectical learning when one can do skills-based activities instead? This mentality seems primed and ready for a shift from live seminars to asynchronous online activities. Yet, as Hilary Potter has argued, online learning is demonstrably constrained by its functionality in a way that is detrimental to the mind, body, and soul of learners.

No going back

Many universities are now staring into the abyss. There cannot be and should not be any return to a past scholarly world of white, male, middle-class privilege and this blog does not advocate such a position. But it must be said that the loaded ideology of innovation in offline and online learning has done abject harm to universities. It has turned them into institutions of credulous servitude whose practices risk perpetuating social inequality by duplicitously selling the “performance of learning” as higher education.

The Covid-19 crisis has spawned some idealistic but nevertheless hopeful considerations about how society might be changed for the better. In speaking of universities, re-establishing higher education proper — through both offline and online media — must be a priority. For right now, our society needs graduates with higher order cognitive skills more than ever before.

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