Try a different structure instead – a second attempt, post-COVID

Why do universities just get stuck with the idea of online education vs offline education, ending up with some kind of hybrid-solution as the middle ground? We can use digitalization for something far more interesting. We can use digitalization to restructure a business. Here is an unspoken of example of what we actually could do.

A month ago, I wrote a post about universities preparing for post-COVID. I touched on the offices, the classrooms, not least Twitter, who have decided; employees will be able to continue working remotely on a permanent basis.

->The first step to post Covid: offices, classrooms, Twitter

Twitter shows that some companies take the opportunity in connection with COVID to restructure themselves. Twitter is a type of organization many students apply for jobs with after graduation. The arguments for doing it: ‘If we want the best in the world, we have to accept if they want to work remotely’.

As an organization: universities are not entirely different from Twitter.

The business is different but not necessarily the people involved.
When we build castles in the sand we start off from scratch, no limits, that´s why some castles also become innovative.

What’s happened in the university world since I wrote that post? After all, time moves fast and plans for post-COVID have now taken further steps forward and become much clearer than before.

The truth is that no one knows exactly what will happen post-COVID. The global university world is far too big for anyone to fully understand it.

Nevertheless, I think we can see a certain pattern in what is happening.

The majority of universities seem to be thinking like this: ‘Let’s open up and go back to pretty much what it was like before, but add a twist of E-learning’.

I have not found any examples of a prestigous university that has decided to reorganise itself into fully digital. If you have, please let me know because I would be seriously interested in how they managed to end up there. On the other hand: I have neither found an example of a prestigous university banning E-learning totally.

There is a reason why managers of universities sometimes claim that running a university is a bit like trying to herd cats – a mission impossible.

However, the university world is relatively weakly hierarchically managed, a bit like a law firm – often run as a partnership-structure. There, the employees are so important to the business that it´s often they who get to decide how things ‘will be’.

So, that management of a university would now dare to decide, which some faculty members might prefer, that teachers will not be allowed to continue digitally at all is perhaps too strong a decision. Doing the exact opposite, which other members might prefer, becoming completely digital, is perhaps neither something one dared to decide on. Then why not go for hybrid, a bit of both?

Blended learning is likely to be a concept who learns to get a revival the upcoming years.

It´s the middle ground.

All this leads to the conclusion that the most likely scenario is that the university world will open up much as before, but that a slightly larger proportion of total teaching than before will remain digital. Which part that further on becomes digital probably depends on everything from the topic at hand to the teacher’s individual choices as well as how strong/weak internal position that teacher actually have.

Why is there nothing else being discussed in relation to digitalization and post-COVID?

Digitalization can be used for so much more.

Most human systems, organizations, were once built with a certain thought, and during a time that looked a certain way. The technical possibilities were then of a certain kind and set the framework for how one could even structure an organization.

It´s worth noting that it made sense once that the university world was built to use technologies like “buildings, campuses and classrooms”. It was a modern way, back then, to think. After all, the body that universities gradually became came into being at a time when the education industry was otherwise relatively small-scale. The university world, when it was built up, took use of the technologies that existed at that time and that made it possible to train several significantly cheaper than otherwise.

How could we know if this person is working for Twitter, a university, Waze, or is a student? Answer: we can not. But sometimes also people at Twitter, a university, and Waze, have a reason to meet IRL.

It was wise in many respects, back then, to create the structure that is now called a university.

At the same time, it is equally worth noting how today´s technologies, digitalisation, has now changed the conditions for today’s structures, regardless of the type of industry we look at.

Navigation app Waze had under 50 people employed when they were sold to Google, in addition to sky-high valuation. How reasonable was that?

Well, it made sense because the solution they had built was used by a lot of people. The business value created by these few employees was so high. They used the existing technologies of today in a pretty good way one must admit.

If an industrial company were to be built from scratch today, while taking into account the technological possibilities that now exist, one would hardly structure such a company in the same way as one did 100 years ago.

It is also interesting to note how the old classic division of an industrial company; in the marketing, development and production departments are now also fundamentally challenged – a very basic way of structuring industrial companies that has become so common that it for a very long time more or less just has been taken for granted.

With a digitally connected product, what used to be the development department can now test drive a new feature directly with customers, then a separate organized marketing department is no longer needed in the same way. Nor is it possible to distinguish the development of so new products from the production of products during such circumstances.

It´s no coincidence that many startups of today structure themselves totally different, into small teams. Marketing, product development, production in one so to speak.

Why doesn´t today’s university seem to take the opportunity to restructure itself?

Digitalization is creating new opportunities to structure a business.

Try this thought experiment:

  • Suppose that a university of today decided to allow the first half year of an education to take place entirely digitally. If it was a technical university, it could be six months of mathematics in particular – math is relatively easy to digitalize, here.
  • It would free up resources. Fewer teachers per student, fewer classrooms, lower costs – resources that could be used elsewhere.
  • At the same time, suppose that this university also decided to allow anyone who wants, regardless of background, regardless of previous educations, to enroll. Digital education does not have to cost more if you brought in 1000, 10,000 or 100,000 students.
  • Then suppose that at the end of that six-month period there was a test, and that the very best students on that test would then be allowed to continue. Where to put the cap? Perhaps let your existing premises and teacher capacity set the limit – unless you want to expand on the market, of course. Same ”cap-method” as today.
  • However, those who were not allowed to continue were able to obtain a certificate describing the level of knowledge they passed. Let them in particular get this half year of education for free and a kind of certificate they might have use for later on in life. It could be useful for them to know their level. It would also be a pretty nice gift compared to what these “non-accepted” is given today: pure nothing, except perhaps a rejection-letter – good branding. Also give them a new chance the next year, they might learn more during the road now when they know what is needed.
  • Invoice the ones that remain, when/if they decide to continue = same total income as of today.
  • Then suppose that the students who were allowed to continue, those who had done best, would receive a much more teacher-intensive education, IRL, than the one that exists now ­– university education of today is actually not as teacher-intensive as many assume that it is.
  • Resources would simply be moved from the first half of the first year to the latter parts of the education. So this solution would not have to cost more than the current system at all.
  • And off-line education, IRL, which often is a bit expensive, could be developed further compared to how it actually looks today. More seminars than before. More live interaction in smaller groups. All that which so many desire, particularly during higher levels of education.
  • At the same time, more people than before could have the chance to start and the current grading-inciting admissions system could be removed – saving more money? More people, than today, would have the chance to get in.
  • A more democratic system, one might think. And the greater the selection from the beginning, the greater the chance that the real talents of the future were picked up.
  • At the same time, students who then also continued could receive much better education than they receive under the current system.
  • All this, of course, provided that we imagine a correlation between resources, teacher intensity and quality of IRL-education – an assumption that certainly could be discussed, but an idea rarely something that at least is questioned by universities and teachers themselves.

Wouldn’t this be an interesting solution to try? Would it not become a seriously interesting marketing-statement? Wouldn´t actually media even gladly write about it for free – more savings, but this time on marketing? Wouldn´t it actually be a kind of win-win solution?

Now, what´s in the way for doing this? The existing structure of the whole university perhaps. But then; why not restructure it?

Surely, today, we could structure an entire university in a relatively different way than we do now, without having to get caught up in 100% digital education or its opposite.

A different kind of post-COVID discussion?

Why, then, is this proposal not being tested anywhere, right now? Or is it? If so, please let me know because I do not think that it is.

There is an expression that says that a human system has a built-in drive to defend itself from change. It safeguards what it’s already built. It simply protects what already is.

I wonder if not this also explain quite a lot of what we are seeing, and not seeing, at the moment.

And I wonder all about whether there is a risk that the steps that the university world is now taking in the face of post-COVID risk forgetting one central detail: how today’s young people work.

Wouldn’t it be a bit of a shame if we discovered the upcoming years that a large proportion of students did not return to the classrooms, when we had been able to intercept them digitally during their first part of their education?

And wouldn´t it be a shame if we did not increase quality on the latter part of their education, at the same time as we gave more talents than today a chance to even get it?

Share perhaps this post with someone that believes in solutions for the future that primarily are about something different than what todays post-COVID-discussion seem to be about.

In the long run it is not possible to imagine that universities of today will not re-structure themselves due to the power of digitalization. It´s not a joke that “digital” of today have become so strong that we actually can develop a better world.

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