No New Normal – Debunking COVID-19 Myths in Higher Education


Hugh Martin, Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at the British University in Dubai, explains why we should stop using the phrase ‘the new normal’ and stay optimistic about the future of the HE sector.

By Hugh Martin, Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer, British University in Dubai

Hugh Martin, Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at the British University in Dubai, explains why we should stop using the phrase ‘the new normal’ and stay optimistic about the future of our sector.

I operate in an international context, but I hope my thoughts may strike a chord with some of you. One thing you can say about COVID-19 is that it’s not particularly interested in who you are, or where you live – although both may have an influence on how well, or not, you get through it.

I mentioned in my March blog post that the coronavirus situation was moving fast. In some ways, things have become a little calmer, or at least monotonous, over the last few weeks. Life continues on Zoom, with a shirt and tie on top, and just a pair of boxers below (safely out of view).

Recently, I’ve found myself appearing as a speaker or panellist on various webinars and online roundtables to discuss, invariably, the ongoing pandemic. There are a lot of them about. How are we dealing with COVID-19? How will it change our world for better or worse?

I keep hearing that phrase ‘the new normal’. It annoys me.

It’s most often accompanied by hyperbole, spoken by the kind of doom-mongers predicting the death of the university.

You also encounter the opposite trope: the ambulance-chasers. I’m looking at you, EdTech vendors. They rush in with their software which will miraculously transform our institutions into online supremos like The Open University or Arizona State University.

As the saying goes, reports of the death of the university are greatly exaggerated.

For example, when I left the private sector for HE, I remember being told repeatedly that we’d not need university libraries in the future. Almost 25 years later, libraries are rightly the beating hearts of our education communities, modernised with learning commons, group study pods, IT helpdesks, cafés, meeting spaces, event venues, and many more creatively-purposed uses.

Maybe libraries are less about books in print nowadays, but contrary to all the naysayers, they’re vibrant and vital as ever.

And so it goes with this post-coronavirus nonsense:

  • The campus is dead.
  • Online learning will replace the university proper.
  • Students won’t need (and more ignorantly, don’t want) to attend in person.
  • Research can all be conducted remotely.
  • AI will run future learning.
  • Blockchain will replace the Registry.

Of course, EdTech will tell us this.

Of course, government SpAds and policy wonks will work themselves into a lather advising how much we could save by staying online.

Of course, anyone with a vested interest in flogging products and/or whittling down funding to a scintilla of a gnat will try to advance this disingenuous argument.

The reality is that we are not in a new normal.

We’re not really in anything right now other than coping mode.

We have not moved our institutions to distance learning models. We’ve simply shifted content online. Some better, more expressly and slickly than others, but we should not pretend we’ve all become the OU overnight – just like parents keeping the lid on their kids at home have not suddenly become teachers. To say so, patently undermines and under-appreciates the huge amount of skill, training and work teachers utilise.

Miraculous claims about AI being the magic bullet are bluster. Recent research shows AI development is painfully slow.

Blockchain is a fad. At best, it might add a little convenience (much like your car’s automatic headlights) but it’s not a game changer. At worst, it’s inextricably linked to the murky, criminal underworld of cryptocurrency.

A recent survey of undergraduates in Canada and USA returned with demonstrable evidence that students want to get back on campus as soon as reasonably possible. In my own small university, here in Dubai, a similar survey of all our students (UG and PG) revealed the same.

This is unsurprising.

It seems almost redundant to have to state this, but a university is greater than the sum of its parts.

Surely all of us in HE know – but we better start vocalising it again, quickly and loudly – that being a student is more than getting a piece of paper with some letters on it.

If that were true, then fine, let’s stay online. We can reduce everything to a VLE, with students sitting in their rooms at home in their pyjamas in front of a screen. They can pay their fees and get their online degree as a receipt. In other words, transactional not transformational education.

(Of course, it’s worth noting that the really good, established online institutions don’t see it like this either. An OU degree is anything but transactional. I know this. I was an Associate Lecturer with The Open University for 15 years, teaching mostly online.)

For me, the most important lesson to come from COVID-19 so far – and I say ‘so far’ because who knows how this thing will wax and wane – is a renewed focus on the student experience.

We are reminded of all those reasons why students come to campus:

  • To meet and mix.
  • To challenge and debate.
  • To encounter people from different cultures, backgrounds, genders, faiths, and behaviours.
  • To fall in and out of love with learning, each other, and themselves.
  • All the non-verbal cues which are so hard to interpret online.

We will inevitably be moving into some kind of blended learning environment in the new term or semester, if not for longer.

Here in the UAE, we are waiting for the Ministry of Education to give its directive. For many of you in the UK, your institutions have already decided and gone public, or will have to by the UCAS deadline at the end of this month.

So, when I’m asked what lessons we can learn from the pandemic and what future opportunities there are for HE, I reply that the student experience is my main – and almost only – concern.

We have to find ways to ensure our current, new, and prospective students get that experience whether we’re online, blended, or back in the classroom.

We must:

  • Learn from the best online educators.
  • Dial down our snobbery about how they went about it (and believe me, it was hard work at the OU).
  • Resist the calls to close physical learning spaces.
  • Above all, realise that paying lip service to the student experience will no longer wash.

Ultimately, both literally and figuratively, we have to get back.

Back to what we do best – helping students become independent learners, and providing us all, students and staff alike, with the space to continue our development into well-rounded human beings, alive with the possibilities of knowledge.

P.S. Regular readers of my AHUA blogs will note I usually start with a quotation, often from Shakespeare. It’s interesting, and perhaps instructive, that a quick check of the concordance for Shakespeare, and for that matter Chaucer, reveals zero incidences of the word ‘normal’…

Hugh Martin is the Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at The British University in Dubai, AHUA’s first international associate member. He can be contacted at hugh.martin@buid.ac.ae.

This article was originally published by AHUA on 11th June 2020. You can read the original article here.

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