Does digital education erode the professional status of academics?

The Manifesto for Teaching Online highlights the perceived complicity of digital education in the neoliberalisation of higher education. You can see a recording of my presentation on this topic for the launch seminars of the book here. While digital education does not need to be complicit in a neoliberalisation of higher education, it can appear that perceptions of this complicity are intensifying in the enforced shift to remote teaching. We can see this in common perceptions of digitisation seen as producing a more inferior and mass-produced product and so eroding traditional academic values. But, as I’ve noted before, students are pretty positive about their experiences of online and digital education although staff experiences were much more mixed. A broader survey of academic staff (see here) found stronger findings that academics see online teaching deskilling and deprofessionalising by eroding expertise and personal interaction in teaching. So academics link digital education to the neoliberalisation of higher education. That perception is reinforced by more adept private providers emerging to challenge traditional higher education providers. Also, the pandemic response reduced the wider range of activities at universities – the student societies, access to non-formal learning opportunities, learning to become independent adults – has reinforced the notion of the student as a consumer in a transactional education system.

But as the authors of this article acknowledge, this is staff perceptions based on an enforced and emergency response to a global pandemic rather than from a considered and planned adoption of digital education. Online teaching is entangled with massive increases in teaching (preparation), administrative and other workloads that curtails valued research time for staff. The authors also identify in academics the strongly embedded assumption that students do not like online teaching – this is despite the evidence to the contrary.

What these findings broadly point to a lack of knowledge and understanding of online teaching and the pedagogical possibilities – as suggested by assertions in the survey that digital technologies excluded interactions with students. There is a wider failure in UK academia to prioritise engagement with digital technologies, pedagogical knowledge and practices and learning design over preceding decades. This wider failure has, I would argue, devalued digital practices as important elements of students’ educational experiences allowing managerial imperatives of efficiencies and cost-cutting to frame digital education strategies. Secondly this failure to prioritise created the conditions of a loss of agency for academics through creating the perceived necessity for use of private providers, especially online programme management companies (OPMs), in the extreme conditions of the pandemic. Hence Holoniq calculates the OPM market in 2021 at about $4.5bn rising to $7.7bn by 2025. This market growth is based not only on the expansion of online teaching and of extra-curricular, often skills and employability-orientated provision, but also in mainstream teaching activities of universities. In other words, universities are outsourcing what should be a core capability to external private providers who understandably deliver broadly commodified educational products.

There is nothing inevitable or ‘natural’ about this process. Rather, I would suggest, the post-pandemic context is an opportunity for universities to really consider what differentiates their student experience, why is that important and how can and should the university protect that distinction. How should digital education be mobilised as part of a differentiated educational experience?

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