Violence and viruses bring changes for education

Chemistry professor Luca De Gioia records his lesson in an empty classroom to stream it online for his students at Bicocca University in Milan, Italy. Italian authorities have closed schools and universities in Lombardy and northern regions to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Chemistry professor Luca De Gioia records his lesson in an empty classroom to stream it online for his students at Bicocca University in Milan, Italy. Italian authorities have closed schools and universities in Lombardy and northern regions to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Image: Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapan

Two crises, one local and one global, point to a very different future for education on the planet.

In SA,  the historic levels of violence on campuses in 2015-2016 forced universities to turn from face-to-face teaching to online learning options.

The continuing levels of violence on campuses this year have once again raised the question: is it time to radically alter the means for delivering education to millions of university students?

For protesters to disrupt education for their cause, they need an audience.

Whether it is hundreds of students in a packed auditorium or smaller numbers in seminars or laboratories, protesters running into those classrooms and terminating lectures is an ideal platform for focusing management attention on a grievance.

Students attending classes could, moreover, be persuaded or coerced to join what is always a smaller group of agitators moving from class to class. In the process, the majority of students find their learning interrupted.

Where those protests continue for weeks or even months, there is a great danger that the academic year might not be completed and the graduation (and employment) of thousands of students endangered.

When this happened in 2015-2016, several of the elite universities continued teaching and learning via online platforms.

This, I predict, will become a growing trend for a simple reason — the ongoing protests on campuses are not only going to continue, they are going to get worst because the underlying causes of student grievance are structural and not simply a matter of administrative failure by government or universities or the national student financial aid scheme.

That is, when the economy is stagnant and with high levels of unemployment, there is no way in which the expanding demands of students (tuition, accommodation, textbooks, travel, stipends) can be met.

In the short term, the only option open to universities is to invest heavily in developing more sophisticated and more extensive online learning facilities for students that can be “switched on” in terms of crisis.

In fact, online learning could over time become the replacement model for higher education delivery in place of face-to-face teaching.

If the violence forced some universities to follow this option at home, right now COVID-19 is requiring elite universities overseas to transition to online learning during this new crisis.

The decision made recently by institutions like the University of Washington, Columbia and Stanford was to suspend face-to-face classes for a period of time.

At home, the University of Pretoria disabled its biometric system which requires fingerprints to gain access to the campuses.

This is commonsense given that thousands of students every day place a finger on the same small membrane. Parents are clearly anxious, as are academic and administrative staff.

With students coming in and out for classes every day, and assembling in libraries and lunch halls in large numbers, the chances of viral spread are of course great.

On the other hand, staying at home and learning from home greatly reduces the risk of infection.

Now, for those following recent epidemic trends — SARS (2002), swine flu (2009), Ebola (2014), Coronavirus — this is the start, not the end, of the rapid spread of lethal pathogens across the planet. As a New York Times editorial said last week, “Eventually, one of them will be far worse that all its predecessors.”

Living in close proximity to animals, and feeding off them in crowded conditions, have made it possible for viruses and bacteria to “jump” species.

The speed and ubiquity of global travel means that an infected person can quickly spread a deadly pathogen through the respiratory system and the blood.

The defences of the human body are limited and made worse by the overuse of antibiotics leading to anti-microbial resistance.

Nowhere is the threat to life greater than when humans assemble in large numbers and in close quarters such as in schools and universities.

Think forward and we have no choice but to use the new developments in technology to create radically different models of education delivery than the face-to-face teaching that still dominates in classrooms and lecture theatres.

It is time to switch thinking rapidly and expand the use of online learning platforms so that students can learn to learn from the relative safety of their homes.

Books can already be ordered online and teachers’ notes and assignments can be made available in the same way.

Of course there will be exceptions such as in the performing arts and in medical dissections, but even in those cases online learning needs to create new scenarios for virtual teaching and learning.

A smart school or university will shift its investments in technology towards this new reality facing the planet — a continuing stream of epidemics, some becoming pandemics, for which new vaccines will always play catchup and during which time new ways of teaching and learning will have to be invented.

For education, this literally becomes a case of adapt or die.