So, you want to kill the university?
When the lockdown was imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic in March, I shifted to online teaching at a university here in Dhaka. Having taught online for several months, I almost love it now! I confess that my preparation in online teaching was inadequate. I struggled. I defaulted to the assumption that teaching is a face-to-face activity. Shifting teaching away from a university is akin to severing the soul from the body. It's a symbolic death, the death of a university. If, however, universities are indeed in an existential crisis, the pandemic might not be the cause. It might instead be the final straw. Way before the pandemic, universities were losing steam in the pecking order of essential human infrastructures.
As the pandemic exposes, education is no longer the priority of the governments around the globe. The economy is. When the governments worldwide started to re-open following the lockdown, bars and factories as well as courts and sports stirred back into operation. When, however, it comes to education, they are full of waffles about re-opening, as it ranges from fall this year to spring next year to until a vaccine arrives.
How about if an effective vaccine never arrives? We still don't have a vaccine for HIV. In our prostrate surrender to the Covid-19 pandemic and to a possible vaccine lies the absurdity of our time. When the governments around the globe decide that allowing adults to drink is more important than educating their children, they are already perverse. Likewise, when the governments see schools, not garment factories, as a potential health threat, they are uneducated to the point of criminality. Under such circumstances, a university is a perfunctory entity. Who cares about whether a university is on-site or online? Well, students do! Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett in her essay "College Courses Online Are Disappointing: Here's How to Fix it" in the New York Times cites a recent survey that claims that 75 percent of students in the US find online educational experiences disappointing. I assume that students in Bangladesh would react alike about online teaching.
And yet the shift to online is lauded by some sceptics of the current university system as a transition already overdue. They claim that the current university system is elitist because it provides for those who come from comfortable economic and intellectual backgrounds. And because the current university system has been stable for centuries, it is dated. This dated system is not aligned to the frequencies of a world that renews its techniques and technologies, as well as its missions and ambitions, every nano second. We live in a whole new world that values education differently. This new world considers a university a service centre, where teachers are instructors and students are clients. Mentoring is replaced with training; enlightenment is replaced with skill acquisition. In this dispensation, an ideal education leads to immediate employment. The current university system falls short on that front. For example, a 2014 Gallup survey found that only 11 percent of business leaders believed that university graduates had the skills their workplaces needed. If 79 percent of business leaders find college graduates ineligible for employment, education must bear the brunt of public criticism. So, the clamour for a new version of education gains momentum.
And the vocal advocates of this version of education are almost always the technocrats. They want education redefined, and the current university system replaced. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, for example, in a 2008 interview defined learning as follows—"You're basically downloading data and algorithms into your brain." In the same interview, Musk further suggested that education would be better if it were more like a computer game.
If Musk sounds insightful here, he was surpassed by another technology honcho, Marc Prensky. Back in 2001, Prensky published a two-part essay, "Digital Immigrant, Digital Natives," in which he claims that today's students are no longer the people our education system was designed to teach. Today's students, the digital natives, are so deeply immersed in technology that their learning styles, strategies and even brain structures, are different. Teachers, the digital immigrants, must be adequately technology literate to teach the digital natives. Prensky reduces the disciplinary diversity in education to two terms: "legacy content" (reading, writing, and logical thinking) and "future context" (science and technology). He suggested that regardless of the content, teaching it effectively presupposes inventing a computer game as the primary means of teaching. So, what is the version of education in general they propose, downloading and displaying?
Yes, apparently! If you would like to throw a spanner into this version of education because it reduces education to information management and visuals, hold on. It's already been a decade since some of the universities around the globe leaned enthusiastically in that direction. The rise of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) is a revolution in education given that they're already widespread, popular and useful. MOOCs have flipped the definition and dissemination of education, for they're not time- and space-bound. They, instead, bring about a whenever, whatever, and wherever version of education. MOOCs are course-and skill-specific, unlike a university-sponsored education, which is programme and specialisation specific. And why do we need a degree from a prestigious university when employers such as Google, Apple, IBM and Ernst & Young have stopped requiring traditional university degrees, even for some of their most highly skilled positions, as Professor Michael D Smith claims in his essay in The Atlantic, "Are Universities Going the Ways of CDs and Cable TV"?
What, however, convinces Professor Smith of the inevitable correlation between employment and education? Blaming unemployment on education is akin to blaming the Internet for causing the Covid-19 pandemic. There's no cause-and-effect relation here. Education doesn't cause unemployment. Economics and politics do. When we scapegoat education for economic and political failures, we don't recognise what education is and does. Education is an ethical, intellectual and humane capital that prepares us for a richer and fuller life to draw on and contribute to the legacy of knowledge, peace and prosperity. Ideally, education envisions and accomplishes these functions independent of employment. However, because education empowers us to transform society at large, it presupposes civic engagement. Employment is but one form of civic engagement with economic implications. An educated person is critical to any economy. It will engage and sustain her, with or without employment. The connection between employment and education is incidental.
Unemployment, therefore, doesn't justify the slow-motion disintegration of the universities. Universities are not mere concrete edifices. These are intellectual monuments built over centuries. So resourceful and rigorous is the university system these days that it can guide any of its recruits to the limit of her potential. We no longer wait for the random arrival of geniuses like Claudius Ptolemy, Panini and Ibn Khaldun. Thanks to the university system, we depend on a steady supply of talents like Stephen Hawking, Noam Chomsky and Amartya Sen. Dismantling the university system is intellectually suicidal for our civilisation. Universities must continue to exist for the most part exactly as they are now. Even blending online with on-site is a consequential concession.
So, how do we address the mismatch between pristine education and post-modern technology? Education and technology have never been bed-fellows. They often conflict. Technology emerges and evolves much faster than education. While education develops bit by bit, technology arrives and frequently disappears instantly. For example, around 2005 I first started using floppy and shifted from flash-drive to hard-drive to Google drive. I found all these technologies utterly unreliable, and when I shifted from one mode to another, I had to deal with new forms of digital disruption. Exasperated, I sometimes wonder why Einstein's relativity theories, formulated around 1905, don't spawn frequent alternative versions, whereas Steve Jobs's iPhone, which emerged in 2007, already has at least 20 different versions. Can something that can change and fade away so fast be the foundation of education?
If you answer in the negative, you might apprehend that what dictatorship does to democracy, technology attempts to do to education—it strips education of collective voice and vision. It essentialises some individuals and institutions. These individuals are technocrats, not intellectuals; and these institutions are IT farms, not universities. That's a seedy development, which portends the death of genuine universities. Should we allow the technically proficient to use the pandemic as an excuse to kill our universities? No! What we're left with because of the pandemic is an ersatz university. The sooner it disappears, the better.
Mohammad Shamsuzzaman is an Assistant Professor, Department of English and Modern Languages, North South University, Bangladesh.