Higher Education in the Time of COVID-19

Desperate attempts to curtail the spread of the Corona Virus are turning many localities in different parts of the world into phantom cities. Universities and other higher education institutions have not been immune to this process. They are closed institutions, with academics urged, if not compelled, irrespective of their training for this purpose, to place their courses and carry out their teaching online. This has led many to herald the ‘brave new world’ of online learning as the panacea for the crisis. There are those who would consider the present period as the potential watershed in establishing this already widely practiced mode of delivery as the dominant form of teaching in Higher Education. This reaction, couched in phrases such as “every cloud has a silver lining”, is to be expected and falls in line with the neoliberal tenets that have been underlying most common sense thinking about mass-oriented Higher Education. I argue for caution in this regard.

The history of education is full of episodes whereby necessity, through crises in the form of occupation, led to ingenuity. Under Nazi occupation, Polish universities went underground and operated as distance learning (DL) institutions; material flew from one place to another. This became known as the ‘flying university’. It was innovative and attested to the resilience of the Polish academic community (students and professors) involved. The good thing about the present crises is that it makes those who are resistant to modern digitally mediated technology take the plunge, whether adequately trained for this purpose or not. Many academics from Greece, Italy, Cyprus and the UK revealed that online learning is a new experience foisted on unprepared academics. It might enable them to transcend archaic ways. Most universities throughout the world have placed their courses and are delivering their teaching online. Some universities already have had adequate preparation for this as a good percentage of their students are DL students. It is likely that the teachers involved have had adequate training, in one case of a year’s duration. A former tutor at the UK’s Open University, which backs distance learning with a variety of other approaches, including tutorials carried out by academics ensconced in different parts of the country, spent a year’s preparation period before joining the university staff. The present crisis however recalls, in certain cases, the situation during the immediate post revolution literacy campaigns in Latin America and elsewhere when young literacy workers were rushed to the field without adequate preparation.

This mass scale online learning approach can have the same effect. It can extend beyond a crisis response as the institution begins to see the lucrative side of it, a means of spreading one’s net far and wide. Now it would be foolish to overlook online learning’s positive aspects reaching communities at the furthest remove from universities and centres. It reaches communities with problems of physical access and time. However once the dust settles, will there be space for critical reflection as to how technologically mediated delivery complements what is good about ‘face to face’ delivery and adequate teacher student human interaction? Online learning can address mass students anywhere and at any time throughout the world. All academic staff really need to think about the appropriate pedagogical approach to take and how to use most modern technology in appropriate ways. Development of good learning environments requires specialist skills and is a team effort that requires collaboration between academics and learning designers. And by appropriate ways I mean avoiding the use of this technology as another surveillance mechanism. Recorded sessions, ostensibly for the benefit of those who could not tune into the live session, can inhibit student participation in the discussions.

To what extent is it part of the blended approach to learning which reserves space for different forms of interaction including human to human and human to earth interaction? The push for a lucrative share of the global education market can easily make institutions forget the second aspect of the blended learning approach. Meanwhile elite schools continue to enjoy a monopoly in the latter type of University learning.

How do we strike a happy medium between online and face to face teaching? Will online learning continue to drag higher education along the business route or will it play its part in an overall conception of education as a public good? To end on an optimistic note, as hope springs eternal, I reproduce the words of one of the US’s most prominent educators, Ira Shor who wrote to me on this matter, stating “Critical teachers who question the unequal, toxic status quo will deliver critical education no matter the delivery system”.


More articles by:

Peter Mayo is Professor at the University of Malta and author of Higher Education in a Globalising World: Community engagement and lifelong learning (Manchester University Press, June 2019).

Weekend Edition
March 27, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Bailouts for the Rich, the Virus for the Rest of Us
Louis Proyect
Life and Death in the Epicenter
Paul Street
“I Will Not Kill My Mother for Your Stock Portfolio”
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The Scum Also Rises
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Stimulus Bill Allows Federal Reserve to Conduct Meetings in Secret; Gives Fed $454 Billion Slush Fund for Wall Street Bailouts
Jefferson Morley
Could the Death of the National Security State be a Silver Lining of COVID-19?
Ruth Hopkins
A Message For America from Brazil’s First Indigenous Congresswoman
Kathleen Wallace
The End of the Parasite Paradigm
Anthony DiMaggio
Misinformation and the Coronavirus: On the Dangers of Depoliticization and Social Media
Andrew Levine
Neither Biden Nor Trump: Imagine Cuomo
David Rosen
God’s Vengeance: the Christian Right and the Coronavirus
David Schultz
The Covid-19 Bailout: Another Failed Opportunity at Structural Change
Evaggelos Vallianatos
In the Grip of Disease
Edward Leer
Somebody Else’s World: An Interview with Kelly Reichardt
Robert Fisk
What Trump is Doing in the Middle East While You are Distracted by COVID-19
Daniel Warner
COVID-19: Health or Wealth?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
Corona in Germany: Hording and Authoritarianism
Ramzy Baroud
BJP and Israel: Hindu Nationalism is Ravaging India’s Democracy
Richard Moser
Russia-gate: the Dead But Undead
Ron Jacobs
Politics, Pandemics and Trumpism
Chris Gilbert
Letter From Catalonia: Alarming Measures
Richard Eskow
Seven Rules for the Boeing Bailout
Jonathan Carp
Coronavirus and the Collapse of Our Imaginations
Andrew Bacevich
The Coronavirus and the Real Threats to American Safety and Freedom
Peter Cohen
COVID-19, the Exponential Function and Human the Survival
César Chelala - Alberto Luis Zuppi
The Pope is Wrong on Argentina
James Preston Allen
Alexander Cockburn Meets Charles Bukowski at a Sushi Bar in San Pedro
Jérôme Duval
The Only Oxygen Cylinder Factory in Europe is Shut down and Macron Refuses to Nationalize It
Neve Gordon
Gaza Has Been Under Siege for Years. Covid-19 Could Be Catastrophic
Alvaro Huerta
To Survive the Coronavirus, Americans Should Learn From Mexicans
Prabir Purkayastha
Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Poses Fundamental Challenges to All Societies
Raouf Halaby
Fireside Chatterer Andrew Cuomo for President
Thomas Drake
The Sobering Realities of the American Dystopia
Negin Owliaei
Wash Your Hands…If You Have Water
Felice Pace
A New Threat to California’s Rivers:  Will the Rush to Develop Our Newest Water Source Destroy More Streams?
Ray Brescia
What 9/11 Can Teach Us About Responding to COVID-19
The Covid-19 Opportunity
John Kendall Hawkins
An Age of Intoxication: Pick Your Poison
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Propaganda Virus: Is Anyone Immune?
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 1: Dispatches From a Terrified Heartland
Nolan Higdon – Mickey Huff
Don’t Just Blame Trump for the COVID-19 Crisis: the U.S. Has Been Becoming a Failed State for Some Time
Susan Block
Coronavirus Spring
David Yearsley
Lutz Alone
CounterPunch News Service
Letter from Truthdig’s Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer to the Publisher Zuade Kaufman
CounterPunch News Service
Statement From Striking Truthdig Workers