Murgatroyd, S. (2021) The precarious futures for online learning Revista Paraguaya de Educación a Distancia, FACEN-UNA, Vol. 2, No. 2
Stephen Murgatroyd is a big picture kind of guy. He likes to observes trends, then make not so much predictions but dire warnings about our febrile hopes and optimism regarding the power of educational technology in managing the challenges of the future – a Nostradamus for 21st century online learning. Stephen is a welcome antidote to the hype and hysteria of the media and educational gurus who believe the pandemic will force radical change, and online and digital learning will come, like the cavalry, to the rescue.
In this article he does a great job of analysing the shifting ‘systems dynamics’ of higher education and the likely drivers of higher education policy post-pandemic. It makes for depressing reading but I ain’t saying he’s wrong.
Then he critiques the notion that technology will transform and ‘save’ the futures of universities and colleges. He is deeply sceptical that this will be so, and examines the underlying barriers to the transformation of higher education through digital technologies. Again, I don’t disagree with his analysis of the barriers and the challenges they present.
He ends by offering four pretty generalised scenarios based around two dimensions: finance and technology (see diagram below).
While I agree that universities and colleges will continue to face major financial issues in the future, I’m puzzled why the scenarios are based on only two dimensions, when there are other possible dimensions – such as political will and ideology – that could influence future scenarios. But it does simplify the issue down to four possible outcomes. What is not clear is the degree of choice institutions will have between these scenarios.
And that’s the problem of projecting into the future. As the old Yiddish proverb says, ‘When Man plans, God laughs.’ Murgatroyd’s views can be seen either as coldy realistic or unjustly pessimistic.The future may still turn out differently, and that is because people and institutions adapt and adjust to external conditions, and thereby to some extent influence the external factors – it’s not a one way system.
As I said, I agree with his analysis in general – I just think he’s too pessimistic. I see steady if less spectacular progress being made in the integration of digital technology into higher education teaching. For instance, in Canada in 2019 (CDLRA, 2019):
- 75% of all universities and colleges offered at least some online courses,
- somewhere between 10-15% of all credit course enrolments are now in online
- online enrolments were steadily increasing by 10 per cent per annum up to the pandemic
- virtually all institutions are now using LMS and video conferencing technologies
- the majority of institutions viewed online learning as strategically important
- 71% of institutions had implemented or were in the process of implementing an eLearning strategic plan.
The pandemic will not have slowed any of this down – indeed it has increased the intensity and pressure to move forward:
- one institution in which I am working had already secured substantial internal funding pre-pandemic to support the implementation of its eLearning strategy. The strategy was boosted during the pandemic because a much larger number of faculty requested faculty development opportunities than anticipated and because the value of the instructional and web designers became obvious when everyone had to switch to emergency remote learning;
- Ryerson University’s School of Continuing Studies will not be returning to on-campus classes, but will offer all its programs online this year. (Ryerson is an inner-city university in Toronto, but its Continuing Studies students come from across a wide geographical area).
- Laval University, a campus-based francophone university in Québec, has now more online course enrolments than either of the two open universities in Canada, Téluq (francophone) and Athabasca (anglophone)
- universities and colleges are increasingly integrating digital technology into campus-based teaching through blended learning, flipped and hyflex classes. The numbers are small at the moment but again growing steadily each year.
So I see a middle road between the over-exuberance and over-selling by media pundits and education gurus of educational technology and particularly artificial intelligence, and Stephen’s dystopian future for higher education. I agree that the slow and steady progress in digital learning may still not be enough to avoid the collapse of at least public higher education – but let’s give it a chance. In the meantime, read Stephen’s article in full – it’s an enjoyable read.