An earlier version of this post was published on: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-next-generation-40-isabel-capeloa-gil/
If one generation were likely to be prepared for the new world of remote learning, it was going to be the Millennials. Or so we thought. Born and bred amongst screens and wearables, virtual environments seem to be a second skin for this 4.0 Generation. Skills honed in the world of virtual play have prepared them for the challenges of a society transformed by compulsory confinement.
Surely, digital interaction has come into force as the new normal established by the multifarious nature of COVID-19 in all paths of life. This is a landscape that is not going away anytime soon – and universities must follow suit when societies and behaviours learn to navigate the maelstrom.
As higher education migrates online, the challenge remains to adapt faculty to technology-led instruction though universities have perhaps outperformed their own expectations. Remarkably, at the Catholic University of Portugal the change was smooth. Generation 2.0 flipped the classroom with gusto sharing best practices across social media and introducing new methodologies into their courses. We are proud to witness that even assessment is being rethought across all faculties, as faculty discover the benefits of online examination software. For us, COVID-19 is revealing the true nature of academia – ready to resist and forever open to deal with hazards and to overcome challenges. This is after all what science is about. And yet, there is complexity in the picture.
Either prompted by the unexpected and fast pace of change or by sheer confinement, Generation 4.0 students are growing anxious about the super techie academic environment. Overcoming face-to-face interaction may have once been their trademark but the move now seems to be setting off depression. Activist responses are popping up and student unions are challenging the shift to online education induced by the pandemic and the related implications for the overall quality of education. Other student reactions pivot around the challenges to housing on campus, forced displacement and psychological support. An additional concern lies with preparedness for new assessment models and exams. But loneliness plays a fundamental part in this equation.
Separated from friends and family in a foreign country, students are often coming to their supervisors for human interaction. This may take the form of an increase in tutoring, Skype or Zoom meetings. They are tech-savvy like no other generation, but they are, nevertheless, anthropologically geared towards unmediated empathy. Just as business leaders continue to believe face-to-face meetings and personal interaction are key to corporate success. Maybe, as NYTimes columnist Frank Bruni argues, “we are not wired for social distancing”.
At a critical time for university decisions about education, governance and business models, it is important to recall technology is a driver, not an end. The defining trait that will make an institution boom or bust, is the quality of the interaction between the community of scholars and learners. This interaction may be unavoidably wired for the time being, but the wire does not just yet define the quality of interaction. Indeed, this is a message that a Catholic university must take to heart. We are formed to distinguish between means and ends – technology is a means and not an end. There are, of course, some situations where technology alone can provide great learning experiences, especially when it comes to basic training in techniques. However, we are also formed to understand that human beings are relational. In most circumstances, and certainly in a higher education setting, education, formation and our fulfilment as persons, require personal relationships – between teachers and students, amongst teachers, and amongst students. When this time comes to an end, we will understand better how to use technology to help students to learn. But we should also reflect on how important it is for learning to remain a social experience.
Photo by William Iven on Unsplash