Written by Bas van den Berg
Across The Netherlands, (I suspect also other places) students by far and large, are allowed and actively invited back onto campus for their university education. Indeed, during the lockdowns, many of them plead with their institutions to open up again. However, when they did attendance was low and has remained so. Initially, this was attributed to a hesitancy to come back when the risk of catching COVID-19 was still quite high. Especially in places like schools where many people interact in relatively close proximity. Now, months after with COVID-19 risks currently being negligible, the attendance is remaining low. Many educational institutions have started to ask the question; what on Earth can we do to get the students back in our classrooms? This question generally seems to derive from a perceived understanding that being physically in classrooms is automatically superior for students (learning). I disagree with this assertion.
I am going to propose that this question is the wrong one to ask. Indeed, reading this question from a regenerative education lens, I may raise several hidden assumptions that I believe, should be brought to the fore. My objections cover a number of grounds; 1) it is forceful, often presented as a top-down decision that educators (and institutions) make on behalf of what they think or believe is best for their students. And 2) it skips over fundamental educational questions that ought to be asked first. Before diving into what these questions are and why challenging them may result in alternative directions for education post-COVID I will elaborate on my first objection.
The very question is forceful. Because it assumes students ought to be back in the classrooms, because apparently, that is where they learn the most (effectively), educational institutions can go to great lengths to ensure students comply. For example, they can make attendance compulsory, in which case, because of the vast discrepancy in power held between the university and students (in favour of the universities) the majority will comply with this demand. If they do not, they won’t pass the courses they need for their degrees, which they need for future job security and quality of life. Indeed, the very question and the way it is posited skips over what may be a more regenerative and less forceful path which is to ask what the students would want to come back to the classrooms for. It also brushes all students with the same colours. As it is quite simplistic and may ignore the very different personal realities that students are living with and in that determine whether or not they will go to the classroom physically or log in through a digital videoconferencing software. It’s a lot easier to go with a physically able body for example or without caregiving responsibilities in the family.
In part, my objections towards the forcefulness of the question, arise from an uncomfortableness with the question. If we deconstruct it, we may ask; why would students not want to return? why would students want to go to classrooms in the first place? may there be more effective ways to spend educational time (as well as travel costs (economic and environmental) associated with gathering classrooms full of students)? If we do want to return to physical settings, what do we hope to achieve in them? If we scratch the surface of these questions a bit deeper, we may arrive at fundamental questions of educational philosophy: What is the purpose of our higher education in the time we are living? Skipping these more fundamental questions is a shameful shortcoming for us as educators not only because we risk not learning from a fully digital reality imposed on us, but also robs us of an opportunity to redesign the way we do education for the 21st century. We may discover by doing so that the purpose of university campuses is much less about qualification than it is about relationshipping.
Indeed, I propose that there are three major reasons that in general, these deeper questions are skipped. 1) the times we are living in, and the so-called generation Z students have been born into, are too existential to deal with for many. And 2) it is easier to revert back to what we know, even in the face of a world screaming for fundamental change. Finally, 3) most teachers find physical classes more fun (for themselves). It is easy to characterise young people today with stereotypes like ‘uncaring’ ‘risk-adverse’ ‘short-attention spanned’ and ‘digital natives’. What I suspect is much more the case is that educators (most of whom are much older than students coming into university) only partially, or recently, grew up in a world that is in systemic crisis. Wars, privacy loss, rampant digitalisation, pandemics, climate change, floods, droughts, social inequality, economic recessions, out-of-control inflation, and a drastic loss of biodiversity are among the ways in which these crises manifest. In a way, focusing on returning to a sense of normalcy may be a way of psychologically dealing with these crises for those for whom this reality is relatively new, or newly landing as such. But it is important to remember that for the generation now entering our universities (roughly after 1995) their entire life has consisted of living with crises. Why would we expect students to come back to a setting which largely presents everything as okay when they are living in a reality that is not? More pragmatically, as a student, why would I bother going to a physical lecture when I can find the same materials in podcasts, videos, or other on-demand formats? Sure, there may be more room for discussion in a live event, but discussions can be hosted online too. I suspect that many of the arguments against digital forms of education can be reduced or eliminated drastically by improving the digital literacy of educators. Perhaps that would also improve the amount of satisfaction that teachers can get from their (digital) teaching. To be clear, I find this third reason by far the weakest and do not believe that educational design should depend on satisfying teachers.
Now, I am not arguing for going 100% digital. Or even that there is necessarily anything wrong with physical forms of education. Or even forcing students to come to a physical event. However, I argue we ought to consider the fundamental questions first before we can make consciously informed decisions. Skipping these only reinforces the status quo, where most higher education doesn’t really do much except keep people busy. For example, we may ask ourselves if universities do not hold the potential to be physical places that people (including students) want to go to as places from which some of these crises are actively tackled? Of course, not!
Perhaps, it is time that educators and educational institutions take a deep, long, hard look in the mirror. Students may not be coming back because the experience they receive is out of touch with reality. I propose we stop thinking about how we can force students to adjust to our sense of comfort. Instead, we can do better. Perhaps, it’s time that we ask each other, and ourselves, different questions. Here are my suggestion for questions from which to start: What is the purpose of university education in times of systemic crises? How do we make sure that ‘coming to the classroom’ aids in the way we all must navigate such crises? How can we deal with the immense discomfort that comes from living these questions?