In the 1960s, physicist Thomas Khun argued that the scientific world is characterised by a set of alternating "normal" and "revolutionary" phases in which communities in particular fields are thrust into moments of uncertainty and radical restlessness. In contrast to steady, cumulative scientific progress where singular issues and anomalies are carefully isolated and interrogated, he claimed, there are moments in history which challenge the very foundation of a community's values and approaches. Thus Khun brought into modern parlance the term, ‘paradigm shift’.
Conversations about the future relationship between technology and education circle around a similar central theme. Has higher education changed in perpetuity? Is online learning here to stay? Have our assumptions about educational technology fundamentally changed?
Many argue that universities will be permanently altered by their recent experiences of online learning. In fact, even before the pandemic had begun, some commentators were calling for a more radical questioning of digital teaching and learning practices. In November 2019, Neil Selwyn et al. urged that ‘the priority for everyone working in the area of education and technology needs to be a rapid collective change of attitude and action.’ Without doubt, 2020 will be a threshold year for Edtech. There will be some institutions that will embrace online and blended education as a new critical practice; there will be others that refocus on campus experiences; there will be some that aim to do both. All three strategic pathways are not without risks. Student expectations are changing and becoming more disparate. It is impossible to regard ‘higher education’ as a monolithic sector. It is likely that learners’ needs, differences and aspirations will become ever more pronounced. As a result, it is perhaps not unlikely that we will see the following emerging:
It is estimated that there will be two billion more learners in the world by 2050 (HolonIQ). Will traditional models be able to respond to the educational needs of these learners at the speed and at the scale required?
One of Khun’s key points was that rival paradigms are “incommensurable”. By this, he meant that straightforward empirical comparisons of the relative merits of old and new paradigms are not possible. If there is one thing the pandemic has brought home, it is that traditional models and online models of education are fundamentally and irrefutably different. As such, we can longer talk of ‘pedagogical replication’, ‘enhancing offerings’ or ‘harnessing technologies’.
If we accept that we are experiencing an educational paradigm shift, then we must regard online and blended learning as a new field of practice in its own right, and one which requires specialist expertise, critical scrutiny, and thoughtful engagement.