Academia in the time of coronavirus

Challenges to the higher education system: Is academia still relevant?

An empty classroom (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
An empty classroom
The novel coronavirus presents the higher education system with a challenge it has never before encountered. Alongside the immediate threat of the spread of the virus, it also presents an opportunity for Israeli academia to conduct a "general rehearsal" in preparation for the future of higher education: relevant digital studies that are connected to our constantly changing contemporary reality.
These days, campuses remain empty due to circumstances beyond their will. Although frontal teaching is of great value, the chance has risen to experiment with additional teaching methods, ones that add a new dimension to academia. The COVID-19 pandemic can drive and accelerate the processes of change that the higher education system can no longer ignore.
Online teaching – even if it occurs in a state of emergency, uncertainty and concern – is not just a technical or technological change. It has the potential to transform the very essence of higher education today and, even more, to generate a new definition of the teacher-student relationship.
There is no denying that transitioning from direct and dialogic communication to online virtual communication is a difficult act that goes beyond giving up on direct unmediated contact, which is so important for the learning process. Online learning should not be anonymous learning. On the contrary, in more than one sense, it can create a "learning community" that accesses knowledge in a faster, more relevant manner. Additionally, online learning can provide students with tools for independent and collaborative study, ones that help them successfully cope with the accelerated pace of change that current life demands.
The "version update" that the coronavirus is forcing us to pursue is a dual one. First, it is shaking up and accelerating higher education institutions’ efforts to become more innovative and daring. Second, the “new version” is preparing students for continuously available learning. Personal teaching will always remain essential, but integrating it with innovative technologies will enable effective studying from which both faculty and students can benefit.
Humanity’s means of addressing the coronavirus risks teaches us that mutual responsibility and community commitment are values ​​whose preservation can save lives.
Interestingly, community in this context actually means isolation, in the shared understanding that a fruitful interpersonal relationship does not necessarily involve the existence of a physical group together in the same space. Similarly, a virtual learning community can realize these social values, even after this deadly virus is eradicated.
The writer is President of the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo.