Why universities have no IT reason to be failing their students

The world's cleverest people seem to be struggling to teach and operate online.
5 June 2020

Lecture halls remain empty. Source: Shutterstock

The different pressures under which higher education institutions are at present look set to continue over the next academic year. With precious few students from overseas willing or able to travel to distant shores, and central economies prioritizing resources to frontline services and economic kickstarting measures, perhaps it’s time for IT in education to flex its muscle?

In our podcast series, Tech Means Business, one episode recorded before the coronavirus outbreak considered the ways that technology policies in universities are not centralized, and therefore will be ill-equipped to respond meaningfully at scale to help universities and colleges out of their financial mire.

Henry DeVries told our podcast that not only do academic departments tend to run their own affairs with regards to technology, but the decision-making process is almost always collaborative, not centrally dictated. The discrete business units operating on campus also rarely co-ordinate their policies or procurement, but do work with schools & faculties.

“The decision-making process across HE [higher education] is largely collaborative. Collaborative between the administrative side of the house, if you will, and the academic side of the house. Faculty as an institution is involved in governance,” DeVries said. “That’s different from how things might work in a bank, for instance.”

While the collaborative and democratic nature of most faculties’ decision-making is laudable (the decision-makers are almost invariably “smart people”, DeVries posited in the ‘cast) lack of a strict, top-down policy with regards suddenly-critical issues like online learning is suddenly important. Without that single governing entity, the provision of education to the student body (including to those financially-vital overseas students) is a haphazard, piecemeal affair.

Despite the fact that online teaching’s effectiveness must be variable (to put it politely) without someone wielding a big stick, there seems to be little sense that students’ fees will end up reflecting the deprecated learning “experience” that they will likely receive.

The University of Cambridge in the UK, for instance, has stated that all its lectures in the 2020-21 academic year (commencing September) will be online. That’s the type of decision that many institutions seem to be taking, to one degree or another. That type of decision coupled with fewer opportunities for small group tutorials, limited library access and restricted facilities is adding fuel to the fires of student dissent.

The vendors of remote learning and teaching software are some of the few companies that are actually enjoying a significant financial boost in the present circumstances. As the coronavirus was developing earlier this year, Forbes‘ Yue Wang reported that many of the individuals behind China’s online education vendors were doing nicely, thank you very much. It’s safe to assume that Western companies in the same vertical have new opportunities they will be keen to exploit.

But without more than a modicum of dictatorial spirit infusing universities’ fractured IT policy-making processes, the potential results for students everywhere will be of unpredictable quality — and that’s despite the relative simplicity of many of the technologies involved. RTSP, for example, is the very common protocol behind web-based video streaming, more than capable of delivering classroom or lecture content with almost no tech knowledge nor infrastructure. Hardly rocket science, but apparently beyond many academic schools, faculties and administrative functions.

Some UK students contacted by TechHQ in the last few days have told us that since the beginning of March, the only teaching they have received has comprised links to third-party YouTube videos covering their subject areas, no tutorial time with teaching staff, and — due to lockdown — no physical access to ancillary services like research facilities, laboratories, studios nor libraries.

National or federal dictates with regards to remote learning methods might not be appropriate, but higher education governing bodies need to start laying down some online learning guidelines for best practice, and soon.

Better yet, it may be time to put aside those collaborative cross-function niceties for now, for the sake of the didactic process (and by proxy, the institutions’ book-keepers). There’s certainly the nous out there: our choice of available consultants would certainly include one Henry DeVries, PhD, and every university and college certainly has the intellectual resources on hand to come up with innovative solutions for these most challenging educational times.

Catch up with Tech Means Business, Series 01.