higher ed,  onlinepivot

10 Lessons from Apocalypse literature

As you probably know I spend too much/nowhere near enough time reading horror fiction. I know some people feel that’s kind of juvenile, but after years of challenging myself to read difficult literature, I decided to just enjoy reading. Plus genre literature gets a bad press and people are generally snooty about it. All of which is a precursor to try and justify the number of horror related analogies cropping up in these posts. Speaking of which…

I’ve been on an apocalypse literature riff recently – you know the sort of thing, zombies, vampires, ecocide, virus, mutant insects, more zombies. These were nearly all written pre-Covid and its interesting to read them now in light of that experience – we’re all pandemic experts now. I’ve also been giving a version of my “Developing robust models of higher education” talk at various events. My argument is that we need to develop a robust model of higher education as the pandemic revealed weaknesses from a system based so heavily on physical co-location, and that it isn’t just about Covid, but any number of crises at an individual, institutional, national or global level that may cause failure in the traditional model.

Reading this sub-genre and giving these talks was coincidental (I think – maybe there was some subconscious prompting in my fiction choices going on, but let’s not psychoanalyse this), but it has led to some cross-fertilisation. As I read of the success or failure of dealing with another version of the apocalypse, I couldn’t help but wonder if there are some more general lessons we can draw from this literature that can be applied to thinking about building robust models of higher ed. So here are my 10 lessons from apocalypse horror for ed tech:

  1. Always underprepared – whenever the crisis hits there are a number of decisions prior to this that mean the protagonists are underprepared. This can be the government cutting funding for warning programmes or individuals not having sufficient provisions. In the higher ed case this can be seen with an over-reliance on the traditional campus model and insufficient planning for more flexible models.
  2. Existing technology is reversioned – we see this a lot, with the wizened old hand demonstrating how their ham radio can still communicate or the sharpened shovel becomes the ideal zombie decapitation weapon. The point is that often existing technology is good enough, and placing emphasis on existing tools such as the VLE, the content management system, telephone support lines, eportfolio systems, online journals and blogs can create a varied, functional education system even if they are deployed in a different or more scaled up version than currently.
  3. New technology is developed – having said that, some wiz always comes up with a new piece of tech that vaporizes those vampires on an industrial scale. I’m always dubious of technosolutionism (see the next point also), but any crises usually sees a technology if not invented then its adoption dramatically accelerated. Look at Zoom and Teams post-pandemic, that way of working is now the norm for many instead of an awkward additional request. For higher ed it’s important to recognise these shifts and to adapt practices accordingly.
  4. Grifters arise – there’s always someone selling a fake cure, or setting up a commune of their own in the apocalypse novel. People want certainty, answers, reassurance. The same is true in higher ed, people will use any crisis as an opportunity to sell their blockchain, unschool, digital natives, hole in the wall bullshit solution. Knowing how to differentiate these from the tech or approaches in the previous point is a key skill.
  5. Cooperation is key to success – after the initial panic and death toll, people inevitably begin to cooperate. Sharing resources, building defences, allocating expertise – it’s all essential to get through the crisis. Those zombies pick of the lone wolf quickly enough. In higher ed we are conditioned to be much more competitive, at least in the UK, where we are fighting for students, research funding, NSS rankings or whatever. The only way to effectively prepare for and cope with the next crisis is to similarly find modes of cooperation. Whether that is around mutual goals, shared teaching resources, memorandums of understanding that allow students to study modules from other providers or shared tech infrastructure, we’re just not as good at this as we should be.
  6. Many existing practices are inadequate – a lot of existing knowledge is not only inadequate but positively dangerous in apocalypse lit. Fighting a rational enemy with supply lines provides a mode of warfare that is inappropriate for combatting the undead. Similarly in higher ed, we revert back to many hallowed practices – the lecture! – which is simply not a valid approach in the face of a new reality. Weick uses the analogy of firefighters who didn’t drop their tools when fleeing a brush fire, despite this impeding their escape, stating “Dropping one’s tools is a proxy for unlearning, for adaptation, for flexibility, in short, for many of the dramas that engage organizational scholars”. Higher ed is not good at knowing when to drop its tools.
  7. Adversity shows us who we are – this is an old adage, and is often the moral lesson of apocalypse stories. We get to see how people react in adversity and often it is not the way we might predict. In higher ed, adversity can reveal aspects of the system itself. Does it really care about students? Can we really find ways to share knowledge and cooperate effectively? There were a lot of positive stories from this during the pandemic, but equally we have to have systems that allow those positives to flourish.
  8. Things are forever changed afterwards – a lot of fiction will end with a wistful nod to how things have changed forever now. Remember during the pandemic we thought a more caring, respectful society might emerge afterwards? Yeah, maybe not so much. In higher ed some things have changed, more often around ways of working. Having virtual meetings or online conferences is often the norm now. I remember how pre-pandemic I’d have to travel for some meeting in Manchester or London, which could have just as easily been done online, but that just wasn’t the norm. Students have become accustomed to accessing resources online, and attending (or catching up on) lectures online. Being able to incorporate these prolonged changes into practice post-crisis is vital for the sustainability of the sector.
  9. Things go back to exactly how they were afterwards – equally, lots of this fiction portrays how people just go back to how they were before within a year or two and put it out of their collective memory. We’ve seen this a lot in higher ed, the demand to return to campus and face to face lectures. To apply all of our resources to returning to how it used to be misses the opportunities for development, and also sets up a conflict with the previous point about adopting new elements. Hence all those empty lecture halls.
  10. It couldn’t happen again… a common epilogue in this literature, after the seeming victory, has one mutated insect/rat/zombie/vampire crawling out of the wreckage, leaving the reader with the inevitable, “here we go again” feeling. Partly this is because horror doesn’t like happy endings, or the author wants a sequel, but it can also be taken as a warning against hubris. All the victorious backslapping should be accompanied by a memento mori, not so much remember you are mortal, but remember this can happen again. This is the point I attempt to make in my talks. We need to be preparing for the next crisis (if we’re not already in it), be it cost of living, political upheaval, another pandemic, global conflict, pollution, climate change, or more locally at an individual or institutional level.

If another major crisis hit next month, would we be much better prepared than 2020? Are we ready? I would hazard that we are not. Although I’m being somewhat lighthearted in the use of the horror literature medium, these are all lessons that are worth considering. Maybe we should start leaving World War Z on our senior execs desks instead of the latest management report.


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