Online pivot – the future


After having done past and present posts, the real surprise now is that I am doing one on the future of HE. As I pointed out in the last post, one of the real defining characteristics of the current situation is that no-one knows what will happen. So it would be foolish to have a stab at predicting the future, especially when some people are so good at being so spectacularly bad at it. According to Elon Musk human language will be obsolete in 5 years time, so I can’t compete with that level of stupid.

The biggest impact on higher ed is likely to be financial. The pandemic has revealed the fragility of the finances in the sector – over expenditure on campus buildings, reliance on international students, precarious employment, expensive student fees in countries like the UK, and so on. After the economic collapse of 2008 there were many predictions, but the real long term impacts were secondary ones. Trump and Brexit are results of the long tail of the banking crisis, which led to austerity, which caused unemployment and resentment amongst white working class which could be exploited by xenophobes and nationalists.

These kinds of effects are more difficult to predict, but if I’ve learnt anything from 2016 onwards, it’s that given a choice between reasonable & beneficial on one path and dumb and malicious on the other, dumb and malicious wins every time. I’d take this as your guide for the way HE will go when we are faced with choices over the next 5-10 years. Expect then increased use of short-term contracts, outsourcing teaching, expansion into other sectors, aggressive staff monitoring and performance measures. Like the worst elements of now, but much more so.

From an ed tech perspective, Tony Bates’s presentation at the Gasta was a very well reasoned argument I felt. Tony predicts an increase in the adoption of online learning, but I think he’s right to say predictions that every institution will go online permanently are overblown. But some will switch to a predominantly online model, so a levelling out of around 15% of institutions offering online may seem right. But he suggests far more will offer a blended model. Having made investments in ed tech, gained some of the benefits of a distributed model, and keen to build in resilience against further crises, a mixture of online and campus will be the norm. This is already the case of course, but I think it will be more akin to the sort of flipped model we’ve seen (and which arguably works better at HE level than K-12).

One thing we’ve seen recently is renewed snobbishness about online learning which we haven’t witnessed since the late 90s. Prestigious universities are likely to make this a key selling point – once the main pandemic has passed they will promote the idea that face to face is the premium experience, and they will provide the real thing. They will probably also do this while aggressively marketing online versions globally to fill the gap caused by the collapse of smaller colleges.

Investing in ed tech will be a likely outcome of this period. This could definitely be a benefit, as these units have traditionally been under-resourced and under-respected. But it could also an increase in tech-solutionism and all those tech bullshit guys getting strategic jobs. Given my rule above, I don’t hold much hope for which way it’ll go.

The short answer is: prepare for financial decisions to dominate with tech used as a prop to these.


  1. Perhaps it is too obvious to mention, or too certain to count as a prediction, but surely a likely outcome is a big cut in governments’ funding of higher education as they start balancing their budgets and repaying debt.

    1. No you’re right to mention it Gavin. I didn’t really spell out how the financial impacts will hit and reduced govt funding (particularly in the UK where higher ed is seen as a luxury) may well be one of them.

  2. Will the fact that Cambridge have just said that they will go fully online for AY 20/21 ‘confer’ a degree of respectability to online now? It must be okay if Oxbridge says it’s okay.

    1. Cambridge has not announced that it ‘will go fully online’.

      ‘Small group teaching – supervisions, seminars or individual tuition – is at the heart of our educational provision and will continue in person as much as possible. Given the likely need for continued social distancing, we have decided to suspend mass lectures in person for the next academic year. Lectures will be available online; this system is already in place in some University Departments. Lectures are only one part of the rich education that Cambridge offers and freeing space in lecture halls will allow us to concentrate on delivering small group teaching, lab work and practicals.’

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