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Education and the Coronavirus: Trying to Look on the Bright Side

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Whether the coronavirus is the Spanish flu come again I cannot say, and will not try. We shall have some grounds for knowing by Easter and may have confirmation next year, when the annual mortality figures are published. Something I can say, however, is that the response to the virus will have large and continuing effects. Many things will return to normal after the lockdown. Much else will not. As ever with those things that change, there will be a new set of winners and losers. And, where education is concerned, I can hope that I shall stand in the queue of the winners—not, I suppose, anywhere near the front, but somewhere in it, modestly and gratefully picking up such additional crumbs as may fall to me in the market where I earn much of my regular income.

As a private tutor, I have been teaching online since 2008. I discovered, when I was made redundant from my university, that Deal was a nice place for living and for spending money, but that almost no one in East Kent wanted to learn Greek or Latin. I therefore went online. At first, I saw this as an inferior substitute for the “real thing.” Then, as I made the necessary adjustments, and as the technology steadily improved, I realised that it was a liberation from the chore of travelling from home to do what I could do just as easily from home—and that I could often do better from home.

But allow me to set out in a more formal manner some of the benefits of online tuition:

First, as said, it abolishes the need for travelling. This applies to both teachers and students. I am a two-hour commute from London, which is the biggest market in Europe for my services. It is over an hour from Tonbridge, where I am involved in holiday revision courses. Even now, when I qualify for a third off, the price of railway travel is an unwelcome cost. My students in Tonbridge and in the London institution where I have been persuaded back to mainstream work often travel long distances. One of my London students comes from Nottingham to learn Greek. There are many potential students who, for reasons of age or poor health, or the cost of travel, are put off learning. Online teaching is the obvious solution.

Second, it abolishes the need of a physical location for teaching. Some years ago, I was advised to rent an office in Ashford to meet students. I thought about this but held back because of the increase in my online teaching. I saved on rent, on insurance, and again on travel. My London institution is bursting at the seams. Finding classrooms for all the courses taxes the administration to its limit. There are daily hard looks when a class runs over its allotted time.

Third, it allows teachers and students to share material directly within a lesson. I have been doing something like this in my mainstream teaching since 2004. I hate PowerPoint. Instead, I connect my own computer to the ceiling projector and make notes in Word as I teach. At the end of the class, I copy and paste these into an e-mail and send them off to all the students. Online teaching takes this one step further. I can make notes on a shared whiteboard, and the students can copy and paste for themselves. They can also add their own material. This is useful for teaching a language; a teacher can write sentences, and students take turns translating them back and forth. Sometimes we can pause for a quick search of the internet. For example, I recently got into a debate with one of my private students about the relationship between the Greek ὁτι and the Latin ut. A few days ago, we discussed the etymology of κροκόδειλος, a word and spelling we had found in Herodotus. In each case, we could both agree within thirty seconds.

Until Tuesday, March 24—just over a fortnight ago—there was a rigid division between my private tuition and my mainstream teaching. The former was branching off in all manner of unexpected and creative directions. The latter was just as it had always been, but with nicer photocopiers and electronic registers. On that Tuesday, however, I suspected my London classes would go down because of the spreading panic over the coronavirus. I added my webcam to the bag on wheels I nowadays take when I go out to teach, and I sent an e-mail to all my students. Sure enough, my first Greek class of the day had only a half attendance—but was nearly full when I fired up Google Hangouts. We read our section of Protagoras and agreed that it went very well. It was the same with all the other classes. Before the last class, I had a text message to say that the building would shut at 10 p.m. that evening until further notice and that all teaching would now be online.

The past few weeks have not gone entirely as I might have wished. One class I had to teach with some students on a Hangouts meeting, one student on Skype via my tablet, and another student on speakerphone via my landline. Some students have been wholly defeated by the technology. There have been failings on my side. I know how to manage an online class with just one student. Managing a class of twelve is still a work in progress. But the system works. All my mainstream teaching is now finished until after Easter, and every lesson was somehow delivered. During the holiday, I will give training to those students who need it. We will reopen later this month, until further notice, as an online institution. Falling out of bed at 9 a.m., I will shamble down to the basement and, revived by coffee, begin earning my daily crust—reading classes in Herodotus, Xenophon, Euripides, Cicero, Vergil, Lucan, and variously less advanced classes in the Greek and Latin languages.

It is ridiculous that in 2020 I should report this as progress. With the exception of my Greek and Roman inscription classes, which have been put off until the British Museum reopens, everything I teach needs just a talking head and some means of answering back. The technology that enables this has been mature for at least a decade. Yet it is the present emergency—whether based on a real or an inflated fear—that has produced a chaotic emigration online.

But this is how large institutions make radical shifts to embrace new technology. Entrepreneurs hunt for new markets, or for new ways of serving established markets. Large institutions will keep with what has worked in the past so long as it just continues to work in the present. New technologies are adopted after others have discovered the more obvious mistakes, but they are seldom adopted in ways that remake an institution and what it delivers. They are instead added as a supplement, and, after so many promises and so much investment, the managers will ask why the benefits are so marginal. Radical change happens only in an emergency. Facing the prospect of total failure, large institutions will hurry to catch up. The managers will tell each other that this is for the duration, that there will be a return to normality. Sometimes, there is a return to normality, sometimes not. Sometimes there is an unstable compromise in which elements of the new are allowed to continue beside parts of the restored old.

For British higher education, this third result is the most likely when the classroom doors finally swing open. I expect—assuming I still have any of my jobs—to find a webcam among the permanent furniture of my classroom. Students will be marked present if they are there in person or if they choose to log in from somewhere else. Since fear of infection will remain long after the coronavirus has gone away, many will not come back in person. Others who do not fear infection will finally have realised that learning and personal attendance are not necessarily connected. Students will be recruited from further away and will be given discounts for choosing to learn online. When all the students in a class choose to learn online, teachers will be shut into little booths rather than given classrooms.

This will, though, be an unstable compromise. The possibilities of education have been fundamentally transformed in the past twenty years. But these have so far been transformed outside the mainstream. Whether enabled by state funding or by students unaware of the possibilities, the mainstream providers have not changed their response. British universities, in particular—and I will not speak of universities elsewhere, because I have no personal experience of them—are in poor shape. They have top-heavy and expensive managements. They are heavily in deficit, and they keep up cash flow by welcoming armies of students who should be doing something else to follow courses that are worthless in themselves, or that have been aimed at the lowest common denominator. They have just two remaining marketable assets. They have their brand names, and they have the privilege of certification.

Sooner or later, the British university will understand the lesson of the present emergency. It may not do so all at once, but gradually, covering every stage with managerial euphemism and short-term promises to the entrenched interests. But it will downsize. It will turn every department that does not absolutely require personal attendance into a virtual provider. Certified courses will then be offered online at heavy discounts. Courses that cannot be presently offered for reasons of cost will then become viable.

For example, I teach a Latin module at one of the universities close to where I live. We need at least a dozen students for the course to run. Every year, half the students say they would like to learn Greek as well. My department is unable to justify the opportunity cost of classroom space and the other costs for a course that might have no more than six students. Take out the opportunity costs, and Greek might find its way into the curriculum. Let it be offered online, and dozens or hundreds of students might subscribe from abroad.

The first university to go even partly online will make the sort of profits Direct Line Insurance made in the 1980s, when it opened with a call centre rather than a network of local offices. Other universities will follow. They will have to follow. Costs and prices will drop further. Competition and the influence of independent review websites will do something to drive up quality—for the usual suspects any market scrutiny would cause an improvement. Given present and likely technology, the final equilibrium may see universities as marketplaces and guarantors of quality, and as awarders of certificates. Within these markets, self-employed teachers will offer services to students throughout the world.

Now, I am not describing some fantasy, in which gaze theory will be dropped in favour of Greek. So far as there are students with funding who want it, gaze theory will continue to be taught. At the same time, a wider diversity of subjects and methods of delivery will have been enabled. This may or may not bring on a secondary recivilisation of the universities. But it will make one possible. It will be an improvement on what we have at the moment.

A further point: I have said nothing of the schools. These face similar general difficulties and a similar present emergency. Millions of children and their parents have discovered in the past few weeks that learning and schooling are not the same thing, and that one can often compromise the other. This being said, there are large differences between the schools and the universities, and a separate treatment may be needed.

Here, then, is my potential benefit from the response to the coronavirus. My women and I are under house arrest. My present employments tremble in the balance. My Easter revision courses have vanished like the steam from an e-cigarette. Ditto my examination marking. For the moment, these actual losses are partly offset by an early trickle of A-Level (General Certificate of Education Advanced Level) Latin students who would normally come to me after September. In the longer term, I can hope to offset the potential losses of employment by a more flexible education market where the division between private and mainstream tuition will have passed away.


Sean Gabb

Sean Gabb is the author of more than twenty books and around a thousand essays and newspaper articles. He also appears on radio and television, and is a notable speaker at conferences and literary festivals in Britain, America, Europe and Asia.

See his website here. 

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