Universities in their modern, globalised, massified, form have emerged amid the general belief that the world is a safe place.
Being predictable and safe meant that the only thing to worry about was gaining certificates, skills, jobs and a place to live. Coronavirus has quickly changed this reality.
As universities close their campuses and move teaching online, this is time for scholarly reflection, but it is also a time for rethinking the organisation of the new social environment for thought and communication – which means our educational technologies, and particularly our organisation of university technology.
A world that is no longer safe
The extent of the unsafeness of the world is not just the virus itself. In its socioeconomic wake there will be destruction of a fabric of assumed safety which has sustained universities and their supposed “market”. The priorities for institutions are now technological. But this is not business as usual, and not simply a matter of pushing people into the virtual learning environment.
The Computer Services department, like many services departments in the university, has established its practices in a safe and predictable world. Its priorities, like everyone else, is to ensure that its world remains predictable. Consequently, the control of technology – which has always had the potential to destabilise the environment – has remained tight and restrictive. For staff and students, the result is often “computer says no”. In an unsafe world, this won’t work.
The effect of campus closure
The shock of “closing the campus” in the short-term, may simply amount to a change of practice: teaching and research will move online as far as possible, providing at least a semblance of “normality” which will allow staff to be gainfully employed, and more importantly, paid – at least for the time being.
For adjunct faculty, like millions of other “precarious” workers who signed their zero-hours contract because “precarity” was the only thing on the table, there are few protections from what is to come. Income and housing, followed by food, will be at risk. Alongside it will come potentially devastating and more serious psychological effects which will exacerbate the underlying anxiety that the precarious contract induced in the first place.
We are all precarious now
Covid-19 means that the whole world becomes unsafe for everyone. Everyone is about to become precarious. Whether one works for an airline, bank, cafe or for a hospital, risks will either be impending financial hardship as the business goes bust, or immediate risk to personal or family health, or both. Students will look at their parents and grandparents, and at the world, and wonder about their own promised graduate premium, their debt, and puzzle over which way to turn as they stare at their Moodle.
Precarity became possible partly because of the institution’s commandeering of powerful online tools. These tools posed a threat to the existing structures and practices of institutions in much the same way that printing threatened the Catholic church in the 15th century. Commandeering these tools to neutralise this threat and reinforce institutional power was exactly what the church did, and it is what universities have done over the last 20 years. In a safe world, this appears to have worked, despite the protestations of many.
In an unsafe world, this looks different. Universities will offer their classes and assessments online. But students and staff, now freed from the constraints of campus, may discover that the most exciting educational experiences online are not produced by the rigid curricular diet of the university. The one thing to look forward to in this period is a burst of online creativity and innovation, much of it by the young. It is unlikely to be led by traditional universities who see their survival in merely “keeping the business going with online courses.”
Why has it taken a pandemic to challenge the campus?
It’s worth asking why it took a pandemic to push us into using tools for online teaching and learning which have been around for over 20 years. Despite the precipitously rising costs of running the campus, the campus has successfully defended itself as the “gold standard” in education. Those costs became an increasing financial burden on society – manifested in giant hikes in tuition and student housing, borne directly or indirectly by government, banks and individuals. Institutions, by their nature, want to maintain their structures and practices in the face of environmental threats, but they have done this by absorbing ever more resource from society.
In the same way that the Catholic church locked printing into the sole purpose of industrialising their indulgence business, today most institutions seek to “lock down” their educational technology to reinforce what happens on campus. Online learning platforms allow teachers and students to do very little beyond presenting learning content and exchanging messages. Only recently with some new platforms has video become more integrated into the interactions in the VLE (long after YouTube indicated what was possible). Analytics has only interested institutions insofar that it claims to help prevent students leaving.
Reacting to an overwhelming environmental threat
It is only when an environmental threat appears which overwhelms the institutional fabric that change is forced upon it. Viable institutions in the impending unsafe world are the social media giants, global media firms like Netflix, and those upon whose infrastructure everything else sits (e.g. Amazon, Microsoft, IBM). Unlike universities, these are open (or at least easily/cheaply accessible) platforms. They are not “exclusive clubs” for which one has to have a difficult-to-obtain passport to gain entry. They do not declare the artificial scarcity of knowledge. They do not accord social status by one’s association with them. Instead – in the case of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc – they provide the means and tools by which one might enhance one’s social status through creativity and innovation. Universities will need to learn how to do this.
If the roots of institutions lie in human relations, which themselves lie in our biology, consciousness, curiosity, our need for love, community and conversation, then space is now needed for teachers and learners to experiment with new ways in which those relations can be expressed technically. The closest we have to this now are the open technologies of social media, not the locked-down and closed technologies of universities.
Innovation and uncertainty
The adversity of an unsafe world creates huge uncertainty, and in turn creates the hunger for community. In our most ancient universities, which today have become “knowledge markets” like everywhere else, the vestiges of these origins remain: the quad is architecture for conversation – a kind of ancient Facebook.
The impending unsafe world is not dissimilar to that from which the Universities originally evolved where the plague and persecution were not uncommon. But our Covid-19 world is a place where only technology can provide the context for the community which we will all crave.
University computer services departments need to unlock technology to provide the tools whereby students and teachers can enhance their status through experimentation, creativity and innovation, and perhaps rather less by certificates and exams. In short, institutions need to reorganise the way we manage and control access to tools. Teachers and learners will need spaces to innovate freely and to become more equal actors in the technological space.
The “computer says no” will no longer work. Where computer services departments may once have sought to restrict and control technology, the institutional need to loosen their grip is urgent.