The transition was never planned this way. First the course material went from print room to Learning Management System, and we said: “Great!” Then the lectures were recorded and available online for students who might have been sick that week, and we said: “Great!”
Then the students stopped coming to the lectures because they could watch the recordings at home, leaving it until the week before the exam to binge an entire season of ECON101 in three days.
So, we were told to “flip the classroom”. Why not edit those lecture recordings into 15-minute, bite-sized lessons, because apparently Gen Z can’t concentrate for longer than that (they certainly can).
Suddenly academics became video editors – mostly bad ones – and our students turned to YouTube, because on YouTube you can get a better explanation of the same thing (for free I might add). Universities turned from communities of learning and collaboration into B-grade content providers. This is the death march of higher education. Universities are not content providers. Somewhere along this unplanned journey we lost our way.
My wife, recently doing an online degree at a top-ranked university, listened excitedly to one of those 15-minute videos by a renowned researcher in the field. Without the professor actually being part of the course forums, she enthusiastically emailed her lecturer instead.
“You are not authorised to contact this person,” the automatic email reply echoed back instantly. Herein lies the absolute limit of suspension of disbelief: that the student is actually still connected to their professor.
The philosopher John Dewey told us that an educational experience – what he called a community of inquiry – requires a cognitive presence (the learner), a social presence (the learning community) and a teaching presence (the professor). My wife could still, just barely, imagine that her professor was being a teacher.
In 2020, a student from Concordia University had a similar experience to my wife, except he discovered that his professor had died the year before. Suspension of disbelief collapsed, and students were understandably upset both academically and emotionally.
In an astoundingly prophetic essay published in Science in 1995, Eli Noam wrote: “In the past, people came to the information, which was stored at the university. In the future, the information will come to the people, wherever they are. What then is the role of the university?”
Prior to the digitisation of the university experience, students sat next to one another, made friends, copied notes if they had been sick, spoke to their professor after class. Certainly, the poor practice of didactic lecturing existed, but students were part of a necessary community-by-proxy. When digital took the students away from the campus, it also it took them away from their would-be community.
We have to evolve, and it won’t be the first time. The earliest universities were built around libraries with vast repositories of painstakingly handwritten books. With few copies in existence, the best way to disseminate this information was for one person to stand up and to read it out to an audience, to “lecture”.
In fact, the word “lecture” originates from the Latin term “to read”. When movable type came along, outcry followed: “The university is dead! People will just get copies of books and learn it themselves!” A similar prophecy was made about education-by-television. Hundreds of years later, we now have all the content imaginable at our fingertips on the internet, most of it free. People are starting to say all over again: “Universities are dead! Everyone can self-learn whatever they want, whenever they want to!”
Content can enable learning, but it cannot provide an education. Similarly, content is not our core value. There is a long tradition, going back to the printing press, of universities outsourcing their content provision to the textbook: an expensive relic, now replaced by largely free content on the internet. This is progress. Education should be better than ever, as we are now able to point at myriad incredible resources, possibly on the web, perhaps in our library, where we act as content aggregator, not creator. Creation is done when we have our researcher hats on, not our teaching hats.
The modern lecture theatre, post-printing press, was supposed to be a place where students and professor came together to discuss the content. When we go online, when those classes are recorded then transformed into 15-minute snacks, the soul of education begins to die. The community of inquiry must be reinvented for the digital campus.
By Dewey’s definition, if our professors spend their time editing videos instead of engaging with students, we cease to even be “educational” institutions. A video made by a professor for only their class is akin to the single-copy, handwritten book disseminated to just one room of people. It is regression, not progress.
A quarter century ago, Noam further predicted that “the strength of the future physical university lies less in pure information and more in college as a community”.
We, as teachers in modern university settings, can think of ourselves as community figureheads and team leaders. The students are part of our community, our team, and we are there to manage them, coach them, guide them, to be mentors, to help teach them over a longer journey, and to corral them through this common goal of thought, understanding and mastery.
We are on their side, certainly not standing at a lectern giving our monologues, just as much as we should not be recording or editing those monologues. There is an oversupply and overload of content at our fingertips today, and if we keep along the strayed path it will end in irrelevancy.