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Professor Barend Vlaardingerbroek

Musings from Beirut: the new norm of e-learning

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I had a great start to the day with a rather cheerless character appearing on the BBC telling me that COVID-19 is here to stay and that its effects will be felt for decades to come.

It was a counterbalance to a report a couple of days earlier that the Russians are launching a vaccine for large-scale implementation in October. They had tested it on 18 fit young army guys and appeared confident about its efficacy and safety. Hooray.

People are naturally optimistic. They tend to believe that, if they make a few sacrifices, all will come right and they can then enjoy the fruits of their labours. After months in lockdown, out they went to beaches and pubs, et cetera; they had done their bit and now deserved their reward. Unfortunately, the virus does not share that ethos.

I find it beyond amazement that some people here are still wondering whether we may return to normal when the autumn semester starts next month. I have even had filthy looks when I have ventured the opinion that autumn next year is unlikely. ‘Pessimist’, they say beratingly.

Let’s get one or two things straight. We still don’t know what infection rates are; all we know is that whenever and wherever we look for it, we find more of it; and it is now acknowledged that an unknown many carry the virus asymptomatically. I saw the medical adviser to the Swedish government effectively throwing in the towel when interviewed by the BBC about the ‘herd immunity’ approach. This damned thing is making a shift from being pandemic to being endemic. Every time we slacken off on lockdown measures, all we get is another wave. And that’s how it will remain as long as there is no effective antidote.

A vaccine – or rather, more than a dozen vaccines – are well on the way, but experts have warned against expectations of a ‘quick fix’ as we have no idea at this time how effective any vaccine will be or for how long. Corners are being cut and that in itself may engender serious spin-off effects once delivered en masse. I sure wouldn’t be rolling my sleeve up in Russia come October.

At the very, very best, an effective vaccine (or effective vaccines) will become widely available late next year and ‘normality’ would be gradually phased back in during 2022. That’s being very, very optimistic. Sadly, optimists are people who are frequently disappointed by turns of events. By contrast, we ‘pessimists’ (read ‘realists’) are often relatively contented people because our expectations are usually borne out by reality, and we are delighted when they are not i.e. when things go right for a change.

We have been hearing the expression “the new norm” for some time but it is only starting to sink in that this ‘norm’ may be – as the term implies – long-term. People adapt to challenging situations and adopt new routines that may persist after the need for them has abated. This is all the more so when a crisis facilitates the adoption of a new way of going about things that has already been hovering in the wings but was not taken on board before because of social or institutional inertia.

A good example of this is the shift towards so-called ‘e-learning’. I converted all my university courses into e-mode. This involved writing lectures (colloquial spoken style, not textbook style) with links to internet resources scattered throughout the text. I send them the printed lectures for the week by email every Monday and we ‘meet’ on Zoom on Mondays and Thursdays.

The most recent email on the matter from Admin asked departments to indicate which graduate courses could not be delivered on-line. By this time next year, e-learning will have become a ‘new norm’ for many departments at my university. Even if a magic bullet against the virus is doing its stuff by then, I do not believe that we would return to conventional face-to-face classes; e-learning is, after all, more cost-effective.

There is already quite a lot of e-learning going on in universities. Many full-time students learn more from material on platforms such as Moodle than by attending lectures in the flesh. But the term is here being used in the context of distance education.

Not that there is anything new about distance education at tertiary level. I did my first degree as a conventional internal student in Auckland but subsequently attained two more Bachelor’s degrees and a Master’s extramurally from two Australian universities in the 1980s (the PhD was nominally internal but I was in PNG where I was collecting my data most of the time). The last exams I sat were with the University of London (PGDipLaws) at the British Council in Beirut 6 years ago.

The ‘on-line degree’ sector has been mushrooming but ‘on-line degrees’ remain the poor relations of ‘real’ degrees which fortunately include traditional extramural qualifications such as the ones I pursued. I made sure that courses I did extramurally were offered as internal ones as well, and were assessed in the same manner. For it is not how a course is taught but how it is assessed that matters. Every exam I sat as a distance student was under tight supervision at a designated examination centre. The reason why ‘on-line degrees’ generally have little credibility is not because they are taught on-line but because they are assessed on-line.  

Ironically, on-line assessment is becoming a feature of many ‘conventional’ university operations, with students sitting standardised exams in front of a computer screen. Millions of students sit exams such as the Medical College Admission Test every year. These machine-administered tests tend to be of the closed-ended type, specifically multiple choice. This just doesn’t strike a responsive chord with me at all. Shoving the answer under candidates’ noses isn’t my idea of evaluating candidate competence. Old stick in the mud that I no doubt am, I firmly believe that the only way to truly gauge an exam candidates’ ability is to present the candidate with an open-ended question which s/he has to write an answer to, preferably on a piece of paper with invigilators keeping a watchful eye out for any irregularities.

I am glad I am approaching the end of my career. I do not enjoy my classes any more – hey, what classes – those little black boxes on the laptop screen? It’s all part of what I call the ‘robotisation’ of human interactions. All those androids running around glued to their little plastic control boxes have, in part at least, abandoned their humanity

I will do my job, but my heart is no longer in it. Perhaps hearts no longer have a great deal to do with it, for the way things are going, the likes of me are likely to be replaced a few years from now by a bit of silicon with no heart at all.

Will the world ever look the same again? At my age (65), the answer is probably ‘no’. What a dour thought to take into retirement.