In response to the lockdown situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students and teachers have made huge efforts to switch to teaching and learning online. Many of us are wondering what education and research will be like after this. What will happen if physical distancing continues to be necessary for an extended period? What will happen to online learning? A sociohistorical approach can help us to make decisions in the present.
When universities first came into existence in the Middle Ages, students came from all over Europe to attend them. To protect these new travellers from the dangers of their peregrinatio academica, the authorities had to issue protections, while professors and students began organizing themselves into guilds or corporations (universitas) for the purposes of cooperation, self-defence, institutional development and assurance of continuity.
The support of the public authorities proved key, but generally it was offered in exchange for some kind of control or benefit, which is why institutional autonomy and academic freedom were established as fundamental principles of the university. Humboldt, the father of the modern university, asserted that the mission of higher education was “to give the fullest possible content to the concept of humanity”, and stressed that this could only be achieved through “vital action”, public protection, mobility, cooperation, and freedom. It was clear that to put these principles into practice, communication, interaction that would allow an open exchange of ideas, would be essential.
Cooperation and mobility
The response to the Black Death of 1348 was based precisely on these principles of cooperation and mobility (in due time, of course). To combat the plague, the connections between theory and practice needed to be strengthened. For example, on the request of King Philip V of France, the professors of the Paris School of Medicine worked together to develop “a brief compendium of the distant and immediate causes of the present universal epidemic [...] and of wholesome remedies.” In Aragón, King Martin the Humane called upon the Consellers of Barcelona to ensure protection for the study of medicine to combat the plague. The University of Perugia received the rank of imperial university from Charles IV in 1355, under a Bull that granted the city the permanent right to a university and provided economic benefits and safe passage for all who desired to study there, including students coming from distant lands.
The uneven response by educational institutions to the influenza epidemic of 1918, hushed up at the time and largely forgotten until quite recently, demonstrated that the consequences could be ameliorated by taking action early and forcefully in the form of distancing and isolation. Many universities were closed while in others masks were used in class; the authorities debated over the number of students that should be allowed per classroom; large gatherings were banned and some universities contemplated holding exams outdoors. Some institutions held sports activities without audiences. Medical research was promoted and healthcare professionals were hired, infirmaries were opened to treat students and hygiene courses were offered. Many students served as volunteers or participated in programs to conduct studies and provide healthcare. Other students took on work as farmhands, sowing and harvesting crops to prevent food shortages. There were many examples of solidarity, although there were also some who made use of the epidemic to attack their ideological opponents.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the protection of the health of students, faculty and administrative and service staff has been given increasing importance. In the United States, the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza published in 2006 established that educational institutions needed to prepare plans to reduce the impact of a possible pandemic.
The strategy included public health measures and instructions for continuing classes online or via local radio and television stations, providing food and housing to students who depend on campus services, and stockpiling non-perishable food and equipment. However, US (as well as European) authorities never acted upon received knowledge; preparing to tackle an anticipated pandemic was not considered profitable.
Singapore offers a particularly interesting case for study. Before the current pandemic, delivering thermometers to students and taking their temperature before entering any building was already standard procedure. The anti-pandemic plan includes (the problematic techniques of) digital tracking and exhaustive mapping of cases using geolocation and facial recognition, as well as strict adherence to physical distancing policies, the prohibition of large gatherings and the suspension of visits to the country.
Classes in Singapore have also been moved online, although in contrast with most scenarios, there has been some real reflection on the consequences of this move. Teaching staff have been receiving online training courses for years and institutions are prepared for a rapid transition.
Nevertheless, problems have arisen with the potential for large-scale plagiarism in online exams. Some have proposed that grading should be limited to a simple pass/fail model. There are also debates about the consequences for lab and field work, as well as for practical examinations. They also already have experience with separating classes into two groups that alternate between working in class and from home.
Collaboration and solidarity
These cases demonstrate the importance of strengthening collaboration and solidarity. However, there is very little discussion about how to maintain cooperation, dialogue and the educational objective of promoting the full development of students in an exclusively digital context, particularly if physical distancing ends up being necessary for an extended period of time.
After the current pandemic is over, we will still need to deal with the threat of new outbreaks until a vaccine is available, as well as the possibility of new viruses and the many problems arising from global warming.
However, academic cooperation and mobility will continue to be essential for universities to function. It is clear that we will need to rethink the mercantile model of academic conferences and the conditions of mobility, just as we will need to rethink mass tourism and global travel. But in-person dialogue, researcher and teacher residencies, and gatherings that create community are vital for the exchange and development of knowledge.
In the current context of technological, communicative and cognitive capitalism, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has acquired much greater importance in higher education. Its geographical and scheduling flexibility, along with the interactivity and immediacy it offers, makes ICT a very useful tool in both in-class and remote teaching at universities, allowing for easier and more economical production, distribution and access to a quantity of content that was previously unthinkable.
In the case of Spain’s National Distance Education University (UNED), the inclusion of an in-class component and the generally older age of the students support the effectiveness of the courses offered. The Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, UOC) is exclusively online and places a strong emphasis on collaboration.
But this type of teaching should be understood as a valuable complement, especially for people who are working or who have time constraints, of education systems that consist mainly of in-person classes. The limitations of ICT use in education cannot be overlooked. The high dropout rates in online degree programs and the low completion rate of the once vaunted Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are good examples of the difficulties associated with exclusively online learning.
ICT has made it possible to adapt to the pandemic quickly and to switch to teaching courses remotely. The fact that this was not possible at any other time in history highlights the value of the technological revolution.
But we should not allow ourselves to fall for technocentric or tecno-optimistic visions, as some politicians have done, because such views underplay not only the inherent limitations of ICT but also the limitations that our social structures impose on the educational use of technology. The result is a tendency to exaggerate its positive impact.
The biggest concern is that the kind of learning experience we have been able to offer up to now is not possible in a situation of compulsory physical distancing. If this situation continues or is repeated, we are faced with two options: (1) online learning; or (2) a drastic improvement in the student-professor ratio so that everyone is able to maintain a safe distance in the classroom.
Universities are not prepared for the second scenario. A massive amount of funding and coordination would first be necessary, as well as the creation of new facilities. Some universities have already announced a reduction in the number of students per group; this is a significant initiative, although the proposed numbers of students per classroom are still too high.
Wherever possible, it would be ideal to combine in-class learning with online learning, giving priority to the first. But if online education takes over from face-to-face education, we will run a serious risk of transitioning towards a post-university context. This context would maintain some elements of university, but it would no longer be university, because education, learning and knowledge are not possible without the cooperation that comes only with face-to-face dialogue.
There is clear evidence that online communication lacks the richness of face-to-face communication. Students and professors have experienced how the communication process becomes more vertical and less participatory and dialogic. Autonomy turns into isolation and there are fewer opportunities for demonstrations of respect and appreciation, camaraderie and reciprocity.
There is clear evidence that online communication lacks the richness of face-to-face communication.
There is also a reduction in the empathy and attention necessary for cooperation and learning. The screen and the context of reception hinder the process of learning through identification with the sender and introduce all kinds of noise.
There is a lower capacity for the transmission and exchange of information and emotions conveyed in non-verbal communication (gestures, facial expressions, visual contact) and there is more room for misunderstandings. Sender encouragement and listening effectiveness are weakened. The capacity for adapting to the audience and self-monitoring are negatively affected, as are the ability to monitor student progress and the social skills that students can develop through discursive practice. The limitations of online dialogue reduce the diversity of ideas and hinder the intersubjective construction of knowledge.
Dialogue is necessary inside and outside the classroom to learn, interact, and develop personal connections and social skills. It facilitates negotiation, motivation and concentration in a context of ICT saturation. Moreover, face-to-face interaction enables all kinds of mixing that support the development of knowledge and human understanding. Non-mediated interpersonal communication is precisely what facilitates the exchange of ideas in contexts of mobility, cooperation and freedom. Mobility allows us to share space and time, getting closer to one another as human beings. Cooperation enables us to produce, exchange and compare knowledge.
Freedom is an impulse that arises from within and that needs to be promoted by the circumstances so that students can engage in and share thought processes.
Of course, another factor to be considered in relation to online teaching is the fact that social inequality is reflected in differences of academic performance and outcomes and in technology gaps. The lower students are on the social scale the more difficulties they are likely to face in the use of ICT. It should hardly be necessary to point out that there are families that struggle to pay their monthly internet bill, or that social class, “race”, education level and age all have a clear health impact.
In addition to affecting health and the potential for human development, as demonstrated by a study by the economist Jared Bernstein, a negative relationship can be identified between income inequality, educational inequality and economic growth: the lower the economic level, the fewer the educational opportunities, which in turn results in a reduced degree of socioeconomic mobility.
At the same time, the educated upper classes are more likely to participate in the political process to promote reforms that are beneficial to them and that have the effect of contributing to increased inequality, for example by influencing the tax system, minimum wage, or investments in healthcare and education.
Increased economic inequality contributes to increased inequality of educational opportunities, producing a less educated and less productive workforce (supply side) who consume and invest less (demand side), which then has a negative impact on economic growth. Ironically, such reduced growth is in turn used as an argument for not addressing the problem of inequality. It is thus clear that post-pandemic education policy will need to be accompanied by a whole range of public measures aimed at improving equality.
It is also worth highlighting that online learning places education under the technological mediation of largely oligopolistic corporations that have found a new market niche, thereby reducing university autonomy and potentially inhibiting academic freedom.
The public service function of education contrasts with the private enterprise function to maximize profits in a technology market based on entertainment and the buying and selling of personal data. This model supports the increasing commercialization of the university, resulting in the promotion of competition over cooperation, privatization of knowledge over free exchange, and a managerial model that undermines critical freedom.
It should not be forgotten that the increasing dependence of research projects on funding from large corporations can have the effect of compromising research results. What is needed is a decisive commitment to a technological framework of public service and defence of the commons. Collaboration with technological institutions, as the Basque Country has shown, can be of great value.
Finally, there are also practical problems requiring urgent solutions that are not always easy to find: website crashes due to saturation, software incompatibility, insufficient technological expertise, excessive emails, the difficult decision of how to grade students, privacy issues, what to do about experimentation or copyright over texts and images... These are hard to solve, but can be addressed with time, funding, training and human resources.
History shows us that universities require protection and investment by the political powers so that they can pursue their mission to contribute to the humanization of societies. This requires the effective implementation of public health measures, and a guarantee of the conditions needed for cooperation and dialogue, mobility and autonomy. Only under these conditions and these practices can universities serve the “spiritual life of the human being”, as Humboldt envisioned, and avoid becoming “something dead within”, a mere “office of the State” (or of corporations), as Macías Picavea and Unamuno lamented. These are the conditions and practices needed to ensure that the enormous challenges that await us do not defeat us.