There was no university in Cyprus before 1992. The first edifice of higher education I walked into was on the first day of my freshman year at Penn State. The Kern Building is an unremarkable 70s red brick square structure on the edge of campus behind the austere Fred Lewis Pattee Library.
Architecturally it exudes more bureaucracy than academia but to get there you walked past grand old buildings which you imagined had vaults filled with knowledge but which Penn State’s admission office chose to ignore for Orientation Week. It did not matter. The nondescript Kern Building was where I spent all of that first week, listening to seniors and graduate students talk about everything that was on offer outside my degree. It was where I understood what the university experience could open up. In my subconscious it is forever associated with the best time of my life.
Most first year students of the 2020-21 academic year are unlikely to have been to their campuses. Among those who have, some are unlikely to have veered out of their halls of residence. With the second wave of the pandemic many have been forced to return home. Most have probably not met their professors.
One University of Cyprus professor told me that he is likely to meet his current 1st year students in person when they become 2nd year students. Another, at Lady Margaret Hall Oxford, unhappy at the prospect of a Zoom session with his first-year students twitted that he donned his thermals and set up a tent on campus to hold one-on-one meetings with them.
Clearly professors and students seem sick of the restrictive online environment in which they have been forced to operate. For years now any reservation about the high-tech online shift that steamrolled through tertiary education was answered by the ominous “this is where things are going” and “students these days live their lives online, this is what they know, it’s what they want”. Well, suddenly this is being challenged by the revelation that students don’t actually want that for their university experience.
They crave meaningful learning that can only derive from person-to-person contact. A real space in which a charismatic teacher conveys knowledge and insight; Cheerful or perhaps grim, but real and there. Students need the spontaneity of a class, the laughter and the grumbling. They need people that grab their attention, they need interruption, certainly the room to exchange opinions. They need the motivation that will elicit the desire to impress a teacher in the next class. All those things that can lead to more questions, to memorable moments, to more learning.
The experience of the process of acquiring knowledge is an intrinsic part of the value of the knowledge acquired.
In our metrics-fixated and rankings-obsessed culture you wonder how student satisfaction might be rated this year. Will it be judged on the quality of the online connection or the ‘screen engagement’ of the lecturer? Universities might not dare ask the question.
There is no doubt that universities have had to deal with an unprecedented crisis. They have raised their game – in terms of technology – to meet the challenge and they have managed to keep education going. What they have done is commendable. But talk of embracing online education as the new norm once the pandemic goes away poses huge risks. It would be a mistake to consider that going back to the pre-pandemic state of affairs would be a return to normality.
That normality was already steeped in difficulties and tensions. Universities had long lost their way. Most academics I speak to are disillusioned with academia. They have felt tired for years. Tired of the corporatism, the data driven outcomes, the culture of fundraising, the low pay, the tyranny of administration, the detachment of students who are there to get a degree and little else.
The online shift will reinforce this mindset against what professor Nancy Rothwell describes as the ‘transformational university experience’ where students learn much more than what a chosen subject provides.
The crisis is a punch-in-the-face opportunity to rethink the meaning of universities altogether. Lucy Kellaway the former financial journalist turned high school teacher wrote recently that she noticed an unusual hunger for knowledge when her pupils returned from the lockdown. “Is it”, she asked, “that having been deprived of education for so long, the students now value it more?”
When university councils and senates sit to consider their post-pandemic strategies, they would do well to think beyond innovative supposedly one-way solutions and to address the old but fundamental question about why students are at university.
Perhaps it’s not just about the hot-shot job pursuit our culture has oppressively imposed on them. Perhaps it is about discovering the pleasures of learning. That might even help academics rediscover the pleasures of teaching. These two groups will always be the crucial ingredients. And they need to come together anew and in person. Any old building should do.
Photo: Pattee Library, Pennsylvania State University (www.psu.edu).