How to manage budget cuts, rising student numbers, and low-quality campus infrastructure? These are questions we’re dealing with in Ireland. There’s an emerging crisis, which this week’s student-led protests against higher fees highlighted but which has also been noted more widely in the Irish media. Funds are needed; but bondholders need to be re-paid.
Of course, the crisis of higher education is not just an Irish one. Across the Irish Sea, the era of the public British university looks like it’s over. Looking to the west, moreover, numerous state university systems are in disarray. So what to do?
Let’s take a specific problem. Let’s say 500 students enrol for a specific course but the largest lecture hall on campus only takes, say, 400. One option: The lecturer could double-teach. Not ideal and far from sustainable from the perspective of the lecturer who has other teaching duties. Another option: The course could go ahead by operating on the assumption that a good chunk of the class won’t turn up, which wouldn’t be unusual here in Maynooth (or elsewhere, no doubt). This is fine so long as students stay away, but if there’s an assessment, an exciting guest lecturer, or an exam review and students all turn up, then the attendance can breach the health and safety rules and the class will need to be cancelled.
Enter the technological fix. Now this has been bubbling up for a while now, but it seems we’re finally starting to see what all the investments in classroom technologies might yield. As reported in the New York Times today, millions of lecture hours in US universities are being delivered online. This isn’t just for distance learning students – students who live in rural Idaho, say, but study a course in Phoenix, Arizona. Rather, more and more students living on or close to campus are watching lectures at home, in bed, maybe even on the move, even though they could go to the actual classroom and (probably?) find a seat. The classroom might have a camera trained on the lecturer, maybe another on the chalkboard, and a server to stream the content out to students across campus. One lecture on the University of Florida’s campus and streamed into the dorms reaches 1500 students. Wow.
Now let’s think back to the 500 students enrolling and the 400-capacity lecture hall. No need to double-teach or assume students won’t turn up. Plenty of scope, in fact, to let in more students! More and more students nowadays (but certainly not all, at least here) have laptops; they’re computer literate. Many would find no issue at all with watching a lecture online. Many watch their TV and movies on laptop screens.
So it’s a no-brainer, right? Technology can fix the crisis. Class sizes can expand. Departments could be merged with nearby ones. Universities could be ‘downsized’, at least in terms of staff numbers. I hate to say it, given that I’m a lecturer, but I think we’re seeing the future.
Then again. Like the idea of ‘naked teaching’, there’s a lot to be said for classrooms without technology. Eye-contact and face-to-face has its place in the classroom; we’ve managed to survive for millennia without computers and web streams. Surely there’s something to be said for keeping some aspects of education tech-free? And let’s not forget, computers crash / get bugs / die. Is the web-streamed-lecture really the way to go?