Isn’t it funny or strange how time has moved during the pandemic? For me, time has passed both more quickly and more slowly, rather in a jerky fashion. It seems like one day, everything just floats along and then I look back and realize that two weeks have already passed, two very full weeks. And that’s the way it is here for me. It seems like only last week we began Insights (when I say “we” I mean the very dedicated team that puts this all together) and now this is the 25th edition! And looking back, well, I didn’t miss anything: a lot happened!
This year not only distorted our sense of time, but it became an inflection point for higher education. In the US, demographics are shifting with traditional students continuing to decline in number and putting very severe pressure on the already cash-strapped universities. One prediction from an “expert” suggested that up to 25% of US universities would close or merge. The State of Pennsylvania has just merged six institutions into two in preparation for the inevitable layoffs of faculty and staff. The University of Maryland terminated hundreds of faculty and staff members in anticipation of the double impact of Covid-19 and declining enrollments. There is a real crisis in higher education in the US punctuated by a lack of preparedness for online learning, weak executive (and overpaid) management, an inherent resistance to change of any kind, rapidly rising tuition and subsequent student debt, and an unwillingness to adapt to a digital global learning space.
Now, here is the punch line, the real shocker. Here is where time passes more slowly and more quickly at the same time: the global demand for higher education is increasing and is forcing local universities to respond to this demand by developing engaging digital content, forging international partnerships to support local students, and generally re-examining who they are and what they are about.
Universities have been teaching in essentially the same fashion for a thousand years. Just think about that for a moment: one thousand years. A student sitting in a classroom at the University of Paris in 1021 would see desks, chairs, a “lectern” at the front of the class and they would sit quietly and write down everything that the professor said because the professor would be reading a book to them. At the end of the course, each student would have their own copy of the book for that course. Since there would not be a printing press for another 500 years, this was the only way to get a book into your hands. At the end of your university experience, you had a library written in our own hand. So, today, there are desks and chairs and a lectern in the classroom and students sit quietly and take careful notes (they can buy their own books now).
One thousand years. And now, with this pandemic and the opportunities afforded by interactive communication technologies, universities are being forced to either adapt or die. 25 issues ago, online education wasn’t recognized in Thailand. Today, Thai universities are scrambling over each other to understand how to engage students in a digital world. 25 issues ago, online education was a “nice to have” for most universities: now they are struggling with how to fully engage the online learner, not only as a student, but also as a digital member of a professional learning community. In an age where travel is unreliable, digital access and accessibility can make all the difference between reaching a learner in Malaysia or Bangladesh or Ghana or Qatar and not reaching anyone at all.
25 issues ago, most of these challenges were starting to emerge into the forefront of the higher education sector. They formed a powder keg and Covid-19 was the fuse that lit it.
But for us at Insights, not a lot has had to change. We work from home just fine. We work across geographical divides just fine. We engage our students in the digital world or the physical classroom just fine. We are a great place to work, a great place to learn, and we continue to explore how we can leverage technology to enhance your learning experience, broaden your career path, and open up avenues of exploration for yourselves and your companies. While the higher education sector’s chaos whirled around us, we, at Westford, were ready. We were prepared. We kept at it and supported you and each other.
Gosh, I’m now wondering what's going to be in store for us on the 50th issue!