This post is part of the learning materials of EDF5647, a Postgraduate Unit at Monash University that explores issues and debates in educational technology. The post is a reflection on recent global events and it seeks to stimulate a remote discussion with students, which will continue on the Moodle forums and other online contexts.
It is hard to overstate the impact of the recent Coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic on Australian higher education. The Australian government’s restrictions on people entering from China have been extended until the 22nd of February 2020, which means that, as I type this, thousands of Chinese students are still experiencing significant uncertainty about the start of their courses. Meanwhile, the sector as a whole has found itself facing the daunting task of boosting online capabilities to maintain course delivery to stranded and increasingly concerned Chinese students. Official reports are emphasising the logistical challenges and the different degrees of readiness between and, most importantly, within Australian universities. The lack of mandatory standards for online delivery in the academy means that, despite the ubiquitous role of Learning Management Systems and video conferencing technology, there is a huge variety among institutions, faculties, and even individual courses in relation to digitisation. To make things worse, familiarity with (and a positive disposition towards) distance or blended forms of provision still cannot be taken for granted among teaching staff.
Could the latest crisis represent a stepping-stone towards changing this state of affairs?
Enter the black swan?
Educational technology has historically struggled with large-scale adoption and much has been written about the cycles of boom and bust of the ed-tech industry, to the point that it is legitimate to ask whether adoption is even a goal any longer for many in the industry. Nowadays, a critical observer could be forgiven for thinking that the most successful ed-tech companies only pay lip service to mass adoption, while their energies are firmly directed at the more remunerative game of (overinflated) start-up funding and selling.
Yet visions of mass adoption are still what drives the volatile dynamics of ed-tech financing, and investors ultimately hope that an innovation will, at some point in the near future, be used by as many students and teachers as possible. How realistic and achievable are those visions? It is hard to tell.
In 2014, Michael Trucano described the importance of “tipping points” with the potential to push educational technology into the mainstream. Borrowing the term “black swan” from Nicholas Taleb, Trucano suggested that epidemics (in the article, he talks about SARS in 2003 but the argument applies to the present situation) could act as “black swans”: critical events that can alter the status quo suddenly and dramatically – something that people did not anticipate but which has nonetheless profound consequences.
When SARS became a public health emergency in 2003, Trucano remembers, China was forced into boosting alternative forms of distance provision, which led to “pockets” of more transformational uses of ICTs. What happened next? It is unclear. The current landscape of global digital provision suggests that a crisis like SARS (and now COVID-19) may result in more robust capabilities in advanced regions, i.e. those that already have the resources, the connectivity and the infrastructure, but will also expose chronic deficiencies in less prepared communities, thus exacerbating pre-existing divides.
What is certain is that some are profiting already from the crisis, as the stocks of Hong Kong-listed companies linked to online games, digital medical services, remote working and distance education soared in recent days as investors sensed this is indeed a transformative moment for digitisation across the region.
Adding to the complexity, international students do not always welcome digital provision, and are in fact less likely to drop out when taught using “traditional” face-to-face methods. Students may also oppose online learning because it may be perceived as a sneaky attempt at forcing education down their throats. Ostensibly, this is what happened when DingTalk, a large Chinese messaging app, launched e-classes for schools affected by the Coronavirus emergency. Students were so unhappy to see their forced vacation threatened that thousands vented their anger by giving the app a bad rating on online stores. Perhaps this last story shouldn’t be taken too seriously, as it is mostly a reminder of the differences in motivation and commitment between secondary and tertiary students, but it also points to the importance of beliefs and emotional responses when attempting to scale up an educational technology, no matter the context.
The importance of distance education in an increasingly uncertain world of global epidemics and other dramatic disruptions (wars and climate-related crises) is without doubt. It stands to reason that the so-called “developing countries” (which in fact include large rural regions in the booming Indian and Chinese economies) can benefit greatly from it, as it can be a way to overcome emergencies and address chronic shortages of qualified teaching staff.
However (and these are the key questions I wish to ask in this post), should things go “back to normal” or should the crisis be exploited as much as possible to achieve permanent gains in the mainstream adoption of online learning? Indeed, what does a “mainstream” or “normal” role of digital education even look like? The answer is not at all obvious. Let’s stick to the Chinese example, and assume that the COVID-19 emergency will lead to some form of permanent change in the relationship between a more digitally-prepared HE sector in Australia and the Chinese student population. What would that permanent change look like? More online courses and a growing market for western-style distance education in Asia? Is this what the Chinese students (even the tech-savvy ones) really want? Is this what the Chinese economy needs? Alternatively, perhaps, the crisis might lead to a more robust response system that activates promptly and then deactivates as things “blow over”, in a world where global emergencies look increasingly like the norm.