Research universities must act as engines of optimism

Enough already. We’ve read article after article and sat through webinar after webinar about higher education’s pandemic-driven revolution.

The messages seem to follow a similar tune, regardless of the singer: higher education is a global sector ripe for innovation, if not revolution; the pandemic has accelerated technology-mediated instruction, finally; and remote meeting platforms have made the world smaller, even if we are tied to the laptops sitting on our kitchen tables.

At this point, how helpful are these commentaries and admonitions? And do they match the unfolding realities we are living around the world?

A transnational forum convened by Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan involving individuals from the National University of Singapore, the United Kingdom’s University of Cambridge and, from the United States, Duke University, the Colorado School of Mines and the Universities of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh and Wisconsin, yielded different and more nuanced insights for research universities as they face the rapidly unfolding future.

Shared realities that shape the future

Even though the global research universities are spread across three continents, their experience yielded a common set of shared realities:

The immediate future and beyond is as much about continuity as it is about change. In the midst of great turmoil and uncertainty, what seems to be one of the biggest challenges is continuity – in instruction and the student experience, and in research.

Innovation isn’t only about advancing the novel and the new. It is about finding new ways to maintain some stability. Students want and expect continuity in their education and in their out-of-class experiences. Academics expect continuity in their labs and research projects and in their funding and international collaborations.

Universities find themselves progressing on two fronts: working to initiate change and concurrently fighting hard to keep some semblance of normalcy and rigour.

Students and academic staff yearn for the personal and sustained and for the informal interactions that matter so much. The pandemic’s forced move to remote instruction is undeniably pushing forward innovation and challenging the status quo. The results are shifts in pedagogies, the curriculum and even the academic calendar.

Yet, we hear from our students and from academic staff about the strong desire to return to in-person instruction and interpersonal contact. As one experienced academic administrator commented during the meeting: “They all want to come back to campus.”

Across universities, regardless of national location, academic leaders recognise that technologically mediated instruction has some clear advantages that are only now starting to mature at a notable scale.

Yet, there are clear limitations to a completely remote learning environment. Students are well aware of this and are conveying their dissatisfaction. Field work, practical work, lab experiences and international education are examples of pedagogies that are all struggling in this new world.

Many of the solutions currently being implemented suit some students and staff better than others. Age and course level seem to matter more than geographic location when it comes to those benefiting from online academic innovation. First-year students seem to be facing a greater challenge with remote instruction than more advanced undergraduates. Foundation students are challenged even more.

Yet, at the other end of the educational spectrum, advanced doctoral students and executive students also yearn for in-person engagement, but for different reasons and purposes.

Then, of course, the challenges of educational inequity are exacerbated further by income level and infrastructure support. When classes met in person, the physical learning environment was consistent for all students: they were in the same room, with the same noise levels and lighting and equal access to the professor. Now that classes are virtual, the environment in which students are attempting to learn varies greatly.

Academic staff with young children and international staff are struggling more than others. Faculty parents are finding themselves not only focused on teaching and learning in their day jobs but in their parental roles as well, given schooling often now takes place at home. This work falls disproportionately on women.

International faculty separated from family and friends are also finding themselves particularly isolated.

Both situations are having negative effects when it comes to mental health. Universities will have to be mindful of and find ways to deal with new levels of heightened emotional fatigue and strain.

Real and sustained innovation demands creativity, space and resources, which few have right now. The saying “necessity is the mother of invention” may be true, but sustained crises result in a context in which people hunker down and retreat. Few have the luxury of time to think and experiment. Constant demands strain individuals and push them to the familiar and safe, if not easiest path forward.

The opportunities for that spontaneous spark catalytic to creativity is lost as informal engagements with colleagues and students are gone. Neither hallway conversations nor casual coffees exist. Instead, people feel battered when they need to be creative; isolated when they need to be connected; are exhausted when their work requires real and sustained energy; and are risk-averse when they need to take chances and be innovative.

The simple ability to conduct research – to have access to data, sites and labs – requires creativity, given the current conditions. While collaborative research can and does continue, new projects dependent on nascent cross-institutional teams struggle to become established in meaningful depth.

Longstanding efforts will continue and may even accelerate, but new efforts are challenged as it is difficult to establish effective collaborations via remote technology, even more so when team members are spread across countries, cultures and time zones.

Furthermore, challenges of funding are anticipated as economies shrink and healthcare takes a larger allotment of public funding.

Universities have to defend science and expertise. Universities and their experts are finding themselves having to defend science, logic and rationality. The value of expertise is no longer taken for granted. In some countries, it is increasingly and commonly something to be challenged, not because of a lack of rigour but simply because the source, scientists and universities, are derogatorily labelled ‘elites’.

Progress on the pandemic and its related ills requires knowledge, informed decisions and data, resources universities have in abundance. There is a battle taking place on an unprecedented number of fronts against misinformation and irrationality. And higher education does a poor job when it comes to irrationality.

Advances in technology threaten academic freedom and raise new ethical concerns. Technology, while it eases communication across an increasing number of places, is a threat to academic freedom. The airwaves and Wi-Fi that bring ideas across national boundaries mean that certain ideas and scholarship may not sit well with local authorities.

Technology is telepresence, but it is also surveillance. With the click of a button, students, or others, can record and quickly disseminate lectures or parts of lectures and may do so without appropriate context or even permission.

Academic freedom and its defences may need to be rethought in this global, digital age.

Concurrently, remote instruction also raises new and redefined questions of access and safety. What are the ethical issues of schooling and safety when some students have easy access to technology, healthy surroundings and safe physical spaces while others do not? How do we think about the trade-offs of personal well-being and public health?

Common questions for an uncertain future

While universities work to deal with such issues while simultaneously keeping in mind those regarding health and safety, this emerging future is also posing a set of questions and challenges for university leaders that transcend national boundaries.

Regarding technology-mediated instruction and remote learning, what are the implications for, not only the intellectual growth of students, but their social and civic development? What is gained and lost as institutions rely increasingly on technology? Although video allows easy access to distant places and people, how can our approaches ensure deeper learning than that formerly accomplished through physical mobility?

What is the next-generation technology and infrastructure needed to ensure effective remote learning? What are the promises of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality? Are they mature enough to matter? How do we ensure equitable access to expensive technology within and across countries?

Does access to technology and infrastructure suggest new collaborations with corporations, government and the private sector, making for more permeable engagements? What might be gained, but what might also be lost from such collaborations?

How can universities forge new types of collaboration among themselves? Given the challenges of travel, but the ubiquity of teleconference, how can higher education leverage these tools to collaborate in new ways and with new partners? The problems of the day will also encourage new collaborations across fields and disciplines. How can they be encouraged and sustained?

The pandemic, by its very nature, is global. Does this mean there is the potential to minimise or even risk losing the importance of the local context? This article is based on a common foundation quickly discovered across geo-political distances. Much is to be lost if the pandemic homogenises the local context and flavour. How can leaders ensure that the global does not minimise the local?

Finally, the pandemic and its crises are focusing attention on the immediate challenges, yet what are the upstream challenges to which higher education must attend? Can we find the time and energy to understand them and prepare for them? For example, how will we educate a generation whose schooling was interrupted by the pandemic? And what are the implications for education and research when that generation of students’ world views are shaped by attacks against science and expertise?

What must happen to jump-start research that hasn’t materialised because of the lack of hallway conversations among academics? Generally, how does higher education get ahead of the curve?

Contagious optimism required

While the challenges above are many, and the questions difficult, the cross-border discussion included a focus on optimism. Academics, by their nature, it was suggested by one academic leader, are optimistic. We hold great faith in the future, in the collective ability to solve complex problems through rigorous application and to work collaboratively across cultures and contexts (and that was before Zoom and Teams started to dominate our lives).

The most pressing question may be: How can universities ensure that our optimism not only continues but accelerates, that it gains momentum as universities work to solve the world’s common and most pressing problems? The general tenor of the discussion from these leaders from diverse universities spanning 15 time zones is to expect nothing less.

Dr Peter Eckel is senior fellow and director of leadership programmes at Penn AHEAD in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. He serves as a principal on the strategic partnership between Nazarbayev University, the University of Cambridge and the University of Pennsylvania. Dr Aida Sagintayeva is dean of the Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education. The convening from which this essay stems was hosted by Nazarbayev University in November 2020 as part of its international partnership efforts.