Energy crisis and hybrid learning
First of all, the implications of the energy crisis for hybrid learning are waaaaaaay down the list of priorities. Many people in the UK are going to face incredible hardship this winter essentially choosing between food and heating ( this will happen elsewhere too, but the UK has uniquely managed to combine a set of factors such as Brexit, contemptuous leadership, lack of investment in renewables, a failed market approach, over-reliance on imported gas, etc to make this a real catastrophe). We have also seen many small businesses such as cafes and pubs facing incredible energy bill increases that mean they will have to close or start selling a cup of coffee for about £18.
So, yeah, let’s get it into perspective. But there will be implications I think. For a start, it will intensify the culture wars I mentioned in the previous post. Those who view online learning and working as essentially faking it, will use the energy crisis as a means to press this argument. It will be along the lines of “we’re heating these buildings because we have to, so get in and use them”. Alan Sugar, essentially a pickled onion belch given human form, is symptomatic of this view, as all people who work form home are ‘lazy gits’. So expect a ramping up of this rhetoric both from a general working from home angle but in higher ed more specifically about making more use of the campus, if it’s being heated with no-one there.
A consequence of this will be a hardening of position on both sides I expect. Those working from home and delivering online learning will see it as a response to the energy crisis, but at the cost of shifting expense to the individual. The home worker or home learner are paying for their own energy costs and will want recognition of this. The counter to this will be that institutions can’t afford to support both models, when their estate’s energy costs will more than triple.
This brings to the fore an economic tension at the heart of all hybrid operations. In some respects, hybrid seems the ideal solution, getting the best of both worlds, for example, the flexibility of online with the social connection of face to face. But from an investment perspective it puts many HEIs in a difficult position. They know that they need to be investing in a future that incorporates online aspects alongside face to face. But they are still largely in a face to face model, and that is what students, parents, politicians, funding bodies and the media demand from them.
The pandemic and online pivot highlighted the need for the emphasis on the first of these demands, building a more robust hybrid offering that could flex to fully online if needed. The post-pandemic backlash against online however has created an environment where they need to promote the latter demand of face to face provision. So they were already dancing on the horns of a dilemma before the energy crisis. This now exaggerates the claims of each, and drastically reduces the budget HEIs had to invest. Schools are facing a funding crisis with rising energy costs and HEIs will likely be hit hard also.
An example of this heightened dilemma might be something like: Many buildings are old and inefficient – should a university invest in constructing a new, more energy efficient building, or should they invest in a technical infrastructure and staff development for better online? They will probably try to do both, but as budgets are hit there may not be that freedom to do so. What would you do?
Perhaps for common use facilities such as libraries and cafeterias universities will plan for lower levels of occupancy. So instead of having a cafeteria with 70 places a university may have one for 40 places.
Academics’ offices are more difficult to negotiate, since all academics want a private office on campus, and many want to store libraries on campus. One university built a beautiful staff lounge with a couple of meeting rooms and good coffee making facilities, and located within the lounge 30 spacious lockers and 15 shared desks. The 30 academics were told that they get their own locker but may only hot desk. There was much grumbling, a union dispute, but eventually the department accepted it and came to like their lounge.
A real pivot to online learning, in the distributed university model, while allowing some f2f components, will lead to much greater environmental gain than the so called hybrid model which maintains buildings, travel etc. It will also open many other educational opportunities such as reducing global inequalities in access https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6506-6