Project Syndicate (USA): what will be taught quarantine our universities?

CAMBRIDGE — will сovid-19 the trigger that finally will provoke a long-overdue technological revolution in higher education? The sudden quarantine imposed in the middle of the semester in many countries to fight the pandemic, has forced universities to switch to distance learning for almost a day. The rapid transition proved very difficult for teachers and students, but all of this could still get some use.

Like many enterprises, universities are scratching their heads over how to open them again, choosing a different strategy. For example, the University of Cambridge in the UK has announced that lectures will be held exclusively online until at least the summer of 2021. Other universities, including Stanford, offer a mixture of classes online and personal presence, while the school year is extended, so that fewer students were on campus at a particular time.

Make no mistake: covid-19 became a powerful economic impact on higher education. The rooms of the hostels free, sports stadiums remain empty, the students are dissatisfied with the requirement to pay the full cost of education. For many colleges and universities decline in revenues from foreign students (especially Chinese) will likely become very painful; a lot smaller and less wealthy universities can be closed.

Even the best universities are facing problems. University of Michigan expects that by the end of 2020, its losses due to the pandemic could reach $1 billion, and Harvard University predicts a fall in revenues next year at $750 million.

But wouldn’t the shock covid-19 to the fact that, in the end, better education will become more accessible to a greater number of people, and at a lower price? The answer will partly depend on what will universities do when the pandemic will subside: they can either defer technology to the side, or start to look for better ways of applying them. It was no easy matter, given the importance of communication between teachers and students both in the classroom and beyond.

When I was a graduate student 40 years ago, I was convinced that the video-training (then advanced technology) will change the University teaching. Why, I thought, students worldwide can get access to the best lecturers and materials, especially when you consider that lecturing in a classroom where there are 200 or more students, in any case leaves a large space for personal communication?

Yes, of course, learning in the classroom will continue to play an important role. Teachers will continue to prepare materials and to answer questions. In addition, I did not think then that the recorded lectures can come on as a substitute in small study groups (although recorded materials, of course, could be applied in these situations too). Speech before a large audience, of course, very much, but a good recorded lecture will always be better than mediocre, which you read personally.

Now fast forward forty years forward: progress has been very limited. One possible reason for this is the management system of universities: they are run by teachers, and few of them inclined to take the path that will lead to a reduction in demand for their services. Teachers, of course, the worry is also due to the fact that recorded lectures makes it hard to find work for their graduates. But they, with their energy and fresh ideas are the key engine of scientific research.

In addition, demographic shifts have long been creating a downward pressure on the number of entrants to colleges. Although teachers in some disciplines (e.g. computer science) continues to see strong demand for higher education, many teachers are faced with the decline in the number of students that, undoubtedly, enhances resistance to new technologies that save on labor.

However, perhaps the most important obstacle is the high production cost efficiently recorded lectures that meet students as well as private lessons. Creating even one lecture for mass consumption is a risky undertaking, requiring a lot of time. And since the recorded lectures are very easy to copy, it may be difficult to claim for them a high price sufficient to cover costs. Mass education startups (including where I live in Boston and the surrounding area) trying to solve these problems, but so far they have not had a strong impact on the system.

Therefore, it is reasonable to ask the question: shouldn’t the US government take on the costs of creating the basic lecture materials, pre-recorded or broadcast online, on some items. (This can be done with courses for the adult population). In particular, Prime candidates for Federal funding should be introductory material for online courses on apolitical subjects, such as mathematics, computer science, physics and accounting.

Many other academic disciplines (of course, including my own — economy) also has a significant online potential. The candidate in US presidents from Democratic party Joe Biden now supports the idea to make College free, which amazes some teachers. But instead of expanding the existing system of universities in the USA, would it be more equitably and efficiently to develop forward through Federal funding of online learning, especially given that it would still and adults of all ages?

Higher education gives students a number of vital skills and knowledge, it helps them to lead a rich and full life, and it, hopefully, makes them good citizens. However, it is not obvious that all these different aspects of higher education, including skill acquisition, and social and intellectual development, it is necessary to connect together exactly as is done now. Students need to come together, but don’t have to do it all the time.

Almost everyone will agree that the expansion of access to higher education is one of the best ways to reduce inequality, help to make society more equitable and productive. In addition, such an access is essential in a world where technology and globalization (or these days, rather, de-globalization) require greater adaptability, and, perhaps, professional retraining to meet changing demand in the labour market.

Apparently, the crisis covid-19 would lead to more rapid and profound shifts in the economic Foundation under our feet. But we should not treat these changes with fear, at the same time if the pandemic will facilitate the transition to a better and more universal higher education.