by Kalani Moore, Molecular and Nano Materials Cluster, Bernal Institute, Department of Physics.

This article was written for the YESBernal Writing Competition, July 2020.

– Revolutionary worldwide access to education?
– Devaluation and closure of traditional institutions?
– Both?

This article is informed by the recent news that Harvard will conduct their 2020/21 academic year fully online while keeping tuition fees the same.
People broadly agree that in-person teaching is better. Online learning is worse. The important question to consider is: “how much worse?”. Would you choose to pay €1000 for a masters course online or €10,000 for an in-person version? Online learning is clearly becoming a reality and so it is important to examine the answer to this question and the implication for the future of education.

It seems pertinent then to outline the situation as it stood before Covid-19 arrived on the scene, from an Irish perspective and also globally. Fundamentally Universities came into existence as repositories of knowledge. Through both paper libraries and the academics residing there. The internet has come along and taken the position of the former, so the value of universities now lies in the latter. People are happy to pay (or have the government pay) to be taught by lecturers for four years and receive a certificate at the end of it. Nobody enters higher education knowing precisely what they will learn during that time. They trust that the certificate they will receive means that they are more highly skilled, competent, and knowledgeable in their chosen field, meeting the standard of “University X” . The whole agreement hinges on trust in the standard of the University, not just by the student, but by their future potential employer. This is prestige. This is why the term “ivy-league” exists. This is why public perception, history, and marketing are now arguably more important to University X’s bottom line than trivialities such as course content, lecturer quality or facilities (apart from great sports programs and nice restaurants to impress students on the open day).

Most universities are not profitable and struggle to gain attention for government funding to sustain their research and educational operations. In response, many have worked to attract foreign students to bump up income in fees. Thus education is a significant export for western countries. In 2019, 1% of humans in Australia were Chinese students attending higher education. Many will have noticed a push in advertising for one-year masters degrees across Irish media recently. Universities are desperate for funding in any form, so what better way than offering some of those classes online? You charge full fees, devote minimal resources, and open yourself up to the entire market of full-time professionals that can’t afford to move city, pay rent and not work for a year or two. Brilliant. The strategy was keeping things afloat financially. Then Covid-19 hit, and everything moved online.

While it may take some time to happen in the real world, I’m going to try to move down the logical path of the online learning decision tree.  Lectures: live or pre-recorded? No feedback is possible in a 10 person zoom call, let alone a 50 person one. Pre-recording allows for a more practised, smooth presentation and the students can watch, pause and re-watch at their pleasure while the lecturer keeps their own schedule. Pre-recorded it is.
“If I can watch a lecture from anywhere in the world, which university do I attend?”. All else being equal, you choose the most prestigious university. But Harvard is charging €100K. So maybe the best that you have access to. In Ireland, all fees are the same, so you choose the most prestigious in your country. 90% of the country are attending Trinity.

Assuming the rest of the universities around the country rage against the dying of the light and remain open, the question arises “why are there 30 lecturers producing 30 videos on the same subject?” . A much better allocation of resources is to pool the expertise to produce 1 outstanding lecture concisely delivering the information. All courses become standardised with each video of incredible quality. Free from focusing on content, the job of lecturers becomes either to give specific feedback/assistance to individual students or to go spend more time on their research.

There is another path, a rather precarious one for universities to tread. What if the students get annoyed paying €100K to watch choppy streams of their Harvard professor trying out figure out how to share their screen? Khan Academy already has tailored video lectures on any subject you can imagine and it’s free. The only difference is you don’t get that certificate, or it’s accompanying prestige. If university online courses are not up to scratch immediately, they had better hope that employers keep trusting in that certificate, or they may find themselves short on domestic and foreign students.

If serious consideration is given to these questions before a return to normal is possible, universities may find themselves in a situation where online courses come under detailed scrutiny. The increased competition would drive down valuations and the fees online courses could command, possibly leading to a global two-tiered education system in the future. Those who can afford to pay full fees, pay rent and not work full time will attend physical classes universities. The lower tier will be able to access the same course online for a reduced fee. How much reduced? Will there be a different value placed on the online-achieved certificate? Can the tenuous research funding model make it through alive? That remains to be seen.