Nicholas Agar makes some predictions about the future of online learning, forecasting things may not go so well for universities committed to traditional teaching models

The pandemic sent university lecturers on a crash course on Zoom video teleconferencing software. As we, fingers crossed, emerge from the pandemic it’s time to speculate about the longer-term effects of universities’ experience of teaching online. In this piece I offer some cautious forecasts about the future of university teaching.

I think there’s a good chance the pandemic will accelerate the trend toward teaching online. This doesn’t mean that face-to-face teaching as it has existed since the last big overhaul of universities in the late 1800s, is dead. But it will become less important as online teaching assumes greater prominence. I support my speculations about the future of teaching online with observations about the evolution of video games.

Zoom is a drag

My forecast about teaching online may seem not to reflect teachers’ and students’ experiences of Zoom through the world’s many pandemic lockdowns. When Peter C. Herman, professor of English literature, surveyed his students about their experiences of leaning online he found that they hated it. He observed that these were young people, digital natives, supposedly the most comfortable with life online.

You know there’s a problem for teaching by Zoom when psychologists have coined a term – Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale (ZEF) – to measure its unpleasantness. Students like Zoom lectures about as much as their bleary-eyed parents enjoy a day of back-to-back Zoom meetings.

The Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab found Zoom to be unexpectedly emotionally draining. In Zoom meetings we spend too much time staring directly into each other’s eyes with no option to take a rest by glancing down at toes. When you’re in the room with a professor it’s easy to pay attention to their words even as you stare out the window for a bit. A Zoom teacher becomes easily-ignored, background noise. We lack cues from body language that we get automatically in face-to-face conversation. Our social brains are frantically trying to work out what that grimace-like expression on the computer monitor really means. No surprise that after the first Zoom lectures almost all students switch their cameras off.

What online education can learn from video games

However, it would be a mistake to conclude too much from today’s anger at Zoom lectures. Zoom is a digital technology. Our predictions of improvement in digital technologies tend to overlook the exponential patterns of progress in these. In the early 1990s, computer chess programs rapidly went from being hopeless to beating Garry Kasparov, the human world champion, in 1996. Today’s human champions understand that computers have them easily beat.

Many of the deficiencies of Zoom are fixable. If you want some suggestion of how online education may change just ask your kids how immersive their computer games have gotten in recent years. Tech-focused universities in the US are currently exploring Virtual Reality headsets and smart glasses that enable you to virtually hang out with holographic versions of your classmates and professors.

We can find hints about the future of online education by looking at how computer games have changed in recent years and how experts expect them to improve over the next years. When leaders in the computer game industry were asked in 2020 about how computer games might look in 2030 there were plenty of proposals about how much more immersive video games could become. Viktor Bocan, a director of computer game design at Warhorse Studios writes about future strategy games in which players using VR technology depart the bird’s-eye view characteristic of computer strategy games like the 1998 sci fi classic Starcraft to “look around freely or even walk over the battlefield. Because why not?”

We can imagine how VR technologies might transform education. If you’re studying Ancient Roman history you might have the benefit of an inspirational professor who vividly describes what it might have been like for Julius Caesar to confront his assassins on the steps of the Forum on the Ides of March 44 BCE. Imagine a future in which an online presentation of that lecture could be enhanced by the VR technologies Bocan speculates about.

You don your VR headset and find yourself standing among Caesar’s assassins. What you see wouldn’t follow the conventions of video gaming – Caesar’s corpse wouldn’t reanimate as an avenging zombie. It would pay careful attention to historians’ best guesses about what the forum actually looked like on that day.

Of course, you could have this VR learning experience in a traditional lecture. But it would go just as well if you were at home in Auckland and your educators were in Harvard. Anyone who’s ever sent an email understands how digital technologies vanquish distance. Increases in computer bandwidth should make the rich informed experience of the Ides of March 44 BCE easily transmissible from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Cambridge, Waikato.

Not the death of face-to-face teaching, but …

This doesn’t mean the end of traditional face-to-face teaching. But it does mean that traditional ways of teaching will become progressively less important.  

Again, the computer game comparison is instructive. Some people thought that computer games would end the traditional table top board game. Who would bother to learn the rules of a complex game when your computer could learn them for you?

I’m a fan of board games. I’m also a fan of traditional face-to-face teaching who shares the feelings about teaching online of Herman and his students. I can affirm that video games did not kill the board game. Nor will teaching online kill face-to-face instruction.

But when we look at trends we must look beyond our current experiences. One source estimates that global market value of table-top board games could reach USD$12 billion by 2023. Impressive! But this figure compares with an estimated value of over $200 billion for video games in 2023. If you are wanting to assess global trends in gaming, look more to the video game than to the board game.

Similar points are likely to apply to education. There will always be a place for the traditional face-to-face lecture just as there will always be board games. But if you are interested in the future of education, look to trends in digital technologies.

Warnings for traditional universities

What should today’s universities take out of this forecasting exercise? I speculate that technology-focused universities, for example Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, are especially well placed to exploit this future market in online higher education.

Things may not go so well for universities committed to the traditional teaching model. Suppose market leaders in online education do develop some breakthrough advance in VR learning. They may share freeware versions of this advance to other universities. But they are likely to save the premium versions for themselves. Traditional universities should then ask what would prevent these leaders from doing what Uber has done to taxi businesses around the world. The Uber model ignores national boundaries. What’s to prevent market leaders in online education from seeking to aggressively expand into the educational markets of traditional providers? The Harvard of 2030 won’t be using fatiguing Zoom to teach New Zealand students. Rather they will be combining the digital tools of 2030 with their elite reputation to reach into global educational markets. 

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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