As new and continuing post-secondary students are already aware, their education in the 2020-21 academic year will be delivered mainly, if not entirely, online.
Some young people who were looking forward to the on-campus experience plan to take a year off in the hopes that universities in 2021-22 will operate more like they did 2018-19.
That’s not likely to happen.
Regardless of how the COVID-19 pandemic plays out, educational institutions won’t go back to full-frontal classroom instruction. They will continue to move to new methods of delivering learning for at least three reasons.
The trend to e-learning is already well established
Even before the pandemic, anyone with a computer, an Internet connection and some motivation could get almost all the education they might need or want without setting foot in a classroom. In some cases, it’s even free.
Universities – including world-class institutions – have put courses online, sometimes in the format of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Websites like coursera.org provide access to these and other courses, including training offered by large firms and prospective employers.
So far, much of the uptake for these programs has been by those who wouldn’t have ready access to regular on-campus classes. They may face financial or geographic barriers. They may have a job they need to keep or dependents at home to care for. For such people, e-learning is a godsend, making education available that they couldn’t otherwise get.
The lecture system should have been made obsolete by the printing press. The word ‘lecture’ originally referred to reading. Before printing, when books were rare and very expensive, a lecturer would read a book or manuscript to those who otherwise would have no access to it. Now access isn’t a problem.
Young people on campus realize that being talked at in a time and place of someone else’s choosing isn’t the most effective way to learn. The information is all available online or in books.
An effective young doctor who’s now working very hard fighting COVID-19 graduated honorably from a good medical school but never attended lectures. There was no need.
It has been inertia as much as anything that has allowed so much classroom teaching to continue. The pandemic has demonstrated how quickly that can change.
Foreign students are disappearing
Education has been a very valuable – if hardly visible – export from Canada. In some years, it has brought more money into Canada than the export of such staples as softwood lumber.
The main way we export education is by inviting students from other countries to our universities and other educational establishments. They use foreign currencies to pay their school fees and for other things in Canada.
The fees that foreign students are charged are well above what Canadian students pay. They have become an important component in the budgets of many universities and colleges, and some lower-level schools.
In the process, foreign students subsidize services provided to Canadian students.
This source of funds is now at risk. Access to travel is limited. Willingness to travel has plummeted. Parents are reluctant to send their children abroad. No one wants to be quarantined or otherwise stranded far from home. And China, our biggest source of foreign students, is not in love with Canada any more.
Fewer foreign students and the resulting smaller budgets at institutions tend to encourage the search for new methods, new efficiencies and change at those schools.
Demographic, labour market trends support off-campus learning
In the past, the typical Joe or Jane College was a recent high school graduate who spent four or more years on campus, acquired a credential and went on to have a family and/or career. Two trends are working against the continuation of this pattern.
First, there are relatively few young people in the population, the result of ongoing low birthrates. Also, the returns in expected earning for a degree make it harder to justify the rising costs of post-secondary education. The demand for a traditional college or university education is not as strong as it was.
Second, in the 21st century, what you learn in your 20s isn’t going to be enough to see you through a career. Sure, you might learn computer systems and work in that field, but the computers and the systems that will be in use 10 years from now haven’t been invented yet. The same pattern applies in medicine, media and just about every other field.
The educational organizations that will survive and thrive will be the ones that provide ever-changing, up-to-date content in a wide variety of delivery modes. They will provide that learning to many different learners, such as job-seekers, employees, professionals and business types. And they will be of varied backgrounds and ages, and certainly in different locations.
Relatively little of that learning will be in the form of traditional on-campus courses.
We will survive the pandemic and move on. But in education, as in other fields, we won’t be going back to pre-pandemic ways.
Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker.