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🔮 Why have universities failed to go online?

The stories of how universities rooted in their buildings and traditional classes were going to be substituted by online education count for more than a decade now. Lots of talks, forecasts, speculations — and it still never happened.
🔮 Why have universities failed to go online?

The stories of how universities rooted in their buildings and traditional classes were going to be substituted by online education count for more than a decade now. Lots of talks, forecasts, speculations — and it still never happened.

We are supposed to witness how that transformation will be accelerated thanks to “everything moving online because of the COVID-19 epidemy”. But it is also clear that the majority of universities all around the globe failed to make that step. But why, and did they?

They did, they failed, but not because they were unable to move their courses online. They failed even if they did it quite well.

About ten years ago and still some 3–5 years before MOOCs rocketed in the form of Coursera, edX, and other platforms, I was an academic developer evangelist for Microsoft. It was a moment when we began moving our content online: broadcasting conferences in real-time, building our video-hosting platform for webinars and events records, blogging was a big theme then, you know.

We also partnered with many faculty members to make their courses available to a broader audience by publishing their content online. But we never thought such things could substitute for the “real” university education. Those courses even didn’t target students directly; it was the content for faculty to freely reuse and build on.

Fast-forwarding to 2020. The flourishing and diversity of online courses make me feel proud of humanity — Brilliant, Drops, Khan Academy — to add a few notable platforms to those mentioned above.

And then that virus thing happened.

It is 11 AM in Moscow; I’m a member of the exam commission for a few postgraduate students. We are all reassembled online using Microsoft Teams (and I’m not an MSFT employee anymore, no ads here). Students get random tickets and have 30–40 minutes to write down their answers, literally, on paper, in front of the webcam. Then they make a photo, upload it to the storage, make their speeches, and answer additional questions. Everything is digitally recorded, and exams are now going online, but something feels wrong.

It was another self-isolation day when various folks in social media, seeing how universities and schools failed to go online and truly embrace digital, introduced a new topic to discuss. “Do we need so many universities (in Russia, we have more than 700) if the best online content comes from just the Top 20?” It was a big money question, I should say. But also true: most regional universities failed to move their content online.

It was a sunny June day. Most of the anti-epidemic measures went down, but universities were still online. The dean of my faculty invited me to the Open [Doors] Day to inspire their potential enrollees. The event itself was online, but the recording was still in the building under closed doors. Somewhere in the middle, we had a small chat-talk with the dean and another faculty member about how things are going and whether they are going to open in September or will continue to operate online. Eventually, they concluded that something is missing with “everything going digital”. “Maybe it is the student brotherhood…”

When we got that power to move things digitally, we started with the most apparent and scalable: lections.

Then lections evolved into online courses, and here we are: believing that online courses will substitute universities because the course program is the building block of university education.

But we didn’t reflect enough that packaging lections in an online format are just another form of an academic book.

People older than me use to say that in their university life, students used to go to the library to grab some books, looking for specific knowledge, stories, schemas, recipes, you name it. People younger than me don’t go to the library anymore. It doesn’t mean they don’t look for new knowledge or skills. They use a different medium: the internet — from Wikipedia to Youtube, and of course, online courses.

Think about what happened in the past 20 years: the library of knowledge as a concept passed through two significant evolutionary steps. First, it went digital with scans and ebooks. Second, it went interactive and social. Online-course is the digital book 2.0. It changed the form, but not the purpose.

And guess what? Those digital books 2.0 are published. They require a publisher and a platform to be released on and distributed through to reach their readers. Consider Coursera, for example. It is one of the biggest publishers of the new generation of “books.” It is not an online university.

After finishing an online course, you get a certificate claiming that you successfully finished reading a… book and learned something. That is it. When MIT releases its courses massively online, it just makes its library open. Reading it doesn’t make you finish MIT.

So what happened when universities went online? Mostly they were unable to compete by their libraries, authors, and producing and publishing power with those from the Top 20. But that is just half of the story.

Think about the university as a system of high education with all the campuses and labs, all the faculty, administration, and students, all the activities inside and outside the walls, and all the connections, events, and the surrounding ecosystem. Remove just one thing from that equation: the library. Does it feel to you like the university or the school disappeared? I doubt so.

But when we went online, we somehow substituted everything with just and almost only online courses. What about the rest? Did we move it online? We tried. Did we redesign it digitally? Nope. We failed.

The big digital revolution of education is still awaiting its heroes. Maybe we will develop it out of the foundation of the modern online education platforms; perhaps it should be rebuilt and redesigned from scratch.