Good Will Hunting once famously said that there is nothing they teach at university that you can’t learn for some pocket change in late-fees at your local library. He was, of course, quite correct. However, the thing is, you probably won’t learn as much by yourself, even if you could. Most people, especially young people, simply don’t have the motivation or the discipline. They start off with good intentions, but after a chapter or two, life takes over, and they give up.
The COVID 19 crisis is forcing universities to rethink how they offer their education. In order to do that well, it is crucial to understand what their added value is. Because only if they understand that can universities preserve the essence of what they do in the new educational reality.
And, actually, it is quite hard to pinpoint the unique contributions universities make to the learning of their students. After all, the lectures are better on Youtube. The textbooks come from American publishers, and most of the research that students are taught about happened elsewhere. Students bring their own coffee, and Microsoft and Blackboard provide the software. Universities do still enjoy something of a monopoly when it comes to certification, by organizing exams and issuing degrees that signal to employers that some students are more trainable and knowledgeable than others. However, employers are increasingly realizing that students learn most of what they need to know for their work on the job anyway and are getting better at assessing job-applicants themselves. So, this function is under threat as well.
Rather, the real value of what universities do is creating an environment that inspires students to actually do the work that is needed to develop and learn; they create the mood. They do this in all kinds of ways, such as creating spaces that invite study and offering content in curated form. But nothing is more important than creating relationships, both among students and between students and teachers. Because it is relationships that keep people working to the best of their ability. It’s the opportunity to meet up with friends afterwards that drags students to the lectures, even when these are boring. It’s the prospect of talking about interesting things with other smart people that makes students prepare for their seminars, as otherwise they will look foolish to that sexy person who always sits on the other side of the room. And it’s the prospect of being praised by respected teachers that keeps students working to make their essays just that little bit better, even when the material is difficult. Without all these things, students just wouldn’t learn, even if modern technology means that it would be perfectly possible for them to do so.
As universities move to online and blended forms of education, it is easy to forget about this, and just put the content of education online. Put the lectures on the internet, do the odd seminar via Zoom, let students hand in their essays online, and give them an email address to contact if they have any questions. Grades can be found in the portal after 15 working days, and your degree can be downloaded as a certified PDF at the end of it.
However, if this is what universities become, they won’t be able to offer the value they were adding along. And then they will become extinct, replaced by other organizations that are better at offering online content. They must find ways to get people in the mood for learning, by facilitating personal relationships and encouraging social interaction of the more cerebral kind. They must enable students to meet like-minded people, allow for pointless pontification, stimulate the exchange of inane trivia, and provide occasions for singing gaudiamus igitur.
The essential challenge in front of universities is finding ways of doing this, even in the age of social distancing. Not considering how to organize home exams or building library portals, but rather finding new ways of getting people excited for learning. Because, for universities, inspiration is the core business.