UC Davis Teaching Learning Complex
UC Davis Teaching Learning Complex

The Great Disengagement: Has COVID Transformed the Culture of Higher Education?

The great disengagement in higher education

Quick Summary

  • The COVID pandemic appears to have transformed the culture of higher education across the globe. The symptoms are empty class rooms, burnt out and apathetic students, blacked-out zoom profiles, and reluctant faculty service. Why is this happening?

In the global economy, COVID seems to have triggered the Great Resignation, which is a transformative event. A punctuated equilibrium. I think a similar phenomena might be happening in the culture of higher education, and I will name it: The Great Disengagement. What are it symptoms? What are its causes? What are its consequences? Is there a cure? I can only offer some speculations here but it think we need global reckoning in the entire higher education system. Because based on some twitter posts and informal discussion with fellow faculty, I'm pretty sure it isn't just me seeing this. And it isn't just in the US--it appears to be a global issue. It appears to be a major transformation or punctuated equilibrium because it shifted overnight in cultural time. To me, it feels like two completely different worlds of higher education pre-COVID versus endemic COVID. I'm sure somebody will point out "but this has already been researched/opined/reported nothing new here"....good for you.

Symptoms of the Great Disengagement

Students are not showing up to class, even when offered a virtual option. I've heard stories of literally zero students showing up. This makes professors feel inadequate and unmotivated. My classes have not been that bad, but the attendance is definitely poor and declining over the course of the quarter. On zoom, students rarely turn on their webcams so it is hard to have even a minimum of face time to develop a relationship. I'm already bad at names....at this point it is nearly hopeless to get to know individual students. Other colleagues report similar experiences, some better, some worse. There is variance.

Students are apathetic and burnt out. They are not doing the assignments even if they are made easier and more frequent rather than traditional midterms, finals, etc. They are not talking much in class, or in zoom. They are spending more time looking at their devices than engaging with the material. For anything virtual, it is hard to even guess about the extent to which they are paying attention.

Students are not as excited about development of intellectual culture and community. Even when given physical spaces to work and think, and opportunities to engage in community building and intellectual life, they are not taking advantage of the opportunities. This used to be a major priority especially among grad students.

Faculty are exhibiting similar symptoms. I'm seeing multiple pleas for service duties go unfulfilled for a long time, requiring extensive exhortations, persuasion, repeated emails(slack...I like it...). Patience for advising is wearing thin. It seems worse for things like admission and exam committees where student engagement is a big part of the job. The reciprocal relationship between student and faculty engagement seems really strained.

Causes of the Great Disengagement

These are hypotheses based on introspection and experience. I have no research evidence about this, and I have no time to do a big literature review.  I'm sure you can delver deeper if you're so-inclined.

Everybody is burnt out and we are experiencing global PTSD. We just went through a major global trauma with COVID, which is only exacerbated by the increased politics of hate and events like the Ukraine war. It is extremely hard to find the energy or motivation to engage in the culture of higher education. Plus why does it really matter, given the global distress everybody experiencing?

COVID is still a scary disease. People are getting sick at high rates, maybe not as severely with early variants of the virus plus vaccination, but it still sucks to get COVID and some people are still dying or experience severe, long-term health effects. It is endemic in the global population at this point. Transmission rates are going up in many universities including UC Davis. Everybody is surrounded by news of COVID exposures and people they know getting sick. Why show up to in-person class, in the face of these risks? Heck, I'm sick as I write this with a known COVID exposure a couple of days ago, and although I'm not currently testing positive, I won't be surprised if that changes in the next couple of days. Class will be virtual the rest of this week, at least.

Virtual learning during the COVID lockdowns demonstrated that in-person learning isn't that valuable or fun, relative to the virtual experience. We like to think that students enjoy coming to class, hearing the lectures from the professors, engaging in whatever participatory activities might be offered, meeting their peers, dating their peers (oh yeah...that is all virtual now too...nevermind...).  Students seem to have discovered that the live lecture doesn't have much informational or entertainment value relative to virtual events, recorded lectures, online readings, and any associated online assignments. And hey if you want good student evaluations (everybody's favorite metric of learning that is not influenced by any implicit biases...NOT!) of your online lectures, you better make it like a TED talk using all the great online technology and software provided by your university (NOT!).

Consequences of the Great Disengagement

Here are a few that I thought of. I'm sure you can come up with more.

Students are learning at lower rate. I can't imagine this isn't true. I remember running across some studies that demonstrated that primary school students with virtual learning have poorer test scores than average, and I'm betting there is some research out there on higher education. Students on zoom, or just not showing up to class, do not have the same attention focus as people in-class trying to engage with the material. There are so many distractions on virtual meetings. If we could instantly turn on all those virtual webcams, I wonder how many different types of distractions/activities we would discover students doing (post-script: sounds scary...probably not a good idea....).

Student culture and community are suffering. The college experience thrives on community, for both intellectual and social purposes. It is really hard to build community without face-to-face interaction. Sure virtual meetings, social media, and other types of virtual forums are alternative forms of social capital. But they complement and do not replace more traditional modes of socialization, which humans have been doing for millennia.

Research creativity is suffering. We're losing the hallway conversations among students and faculty. Hallway conversations are crucial complements to more formal meetings. They are brief and spontaneous.  They might even be just one sentence in passing, "Hey we should do this", or "I just thought of something." They make the overall research creativity conversation more seamless, because they fill gaps between more formal types of focused meetings. I had a rare hallway conversation with a student the other day, while she was making photocopies (a mode of communication similar to cave art...) and it was a really nice reminder their value and fun. Now instead of taking hallway convos for granted as part of community, it seems we have now cherish the rare ones that do occur.

The business model of higher education is threatened. My understanding is that a lot of campus revenue comes from on-campus student activities--dorms, dining halls, etc. I'll admit my understanding is kind of vague because I don't pay a huge amount of attention to university budgets beyond my own research accounts.  But to the extent student life is a pillar in university budgets, if students are not showing up, this seems to be an economic and business problem that universities will be forced to deal with.

Towards a Cure for the Great Disengagement

This part is hard. I don't really have any good answers here.

Research. We need to figure out what the heck is going on here. I offered some hypotheses above. How widespread is this phenomena? Will it last, or is it just temporary as we head back to normal business?  In other words, have we shifted to an alternative stable state or will the ball slide back to the old equilibrium(hi resilience theory). What types of classes, what types of universities, what types of professors, what types of students? Some students are likely benefiting from the Great Disengagement because virtual higher education is more accessible, others are suffering much worse than average. So there is variance and associated equity considerations.

Response planning. There isn't really anything systematic from what I can see. I feel like it is pretty piecemeal, with lots of the information coming via anecdotes, informal information sharing, and professor-by-professor coping strategies and experimentation. I think we need more systematic discussion and response planning at the departmental, university, national, and global levels.  Convening of various high level commissions and other venues. This is probably happening. I don't have time to investigate...and it will be hard to find the time or motivation to even participate.

Pedagogical strategies. How can we make the in-person experience more attractive, if the allure of the typical class room has declined so much? Pedagogical strategies were already shifting towards more participatory modes of interaction and student accountability. Should we build more incentives for showing up, such as attendance grades, quizzes only for in-person attendees, and other activities linked to grades? Grades seem to be a far greater motivator for the average student than the desire to learn (sad...). Of course, in the era of COVID, it doesn't make good public health sense to force people into in-person attendance. So that means, how do we enable more engagement in virtual or hybrid classroom formats? What types of technology can we use to make the virtual experience mimic the in-person community building experience? How can universities subsidize the financial and time costs for using such technology? What types of participatory teaching strategies can be used to engage students beyond just lecturing at them in zoom or  having them watch pre-recorded lectures? How can we evaluate these strategies in terms of learning outcomes? I know that these questions are being explored by lots of different people right now, but we are going to need to have a more global understanding of how to adjust pedagogy.



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