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OP-ED: Research can’t always rely on Zoom

  • Published at 02:20 am June 20th, 2021
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Universities are embracing remote learning, but there is a downside

Covid-19 has increased people’s appetite for remote higher education. However, Zoom has failed to recreate the informal and spontaneous interactions that typify daily campus life, and so traditional universities will continue to play a major role.

Universities officially have two jobs: Educating people, and producing cutting-edge research. In a very crude and literal sense, people can be taught remotely. In contrast, pushing the boundaries of human knowledge greatly benefits from putting humans in the same room.

Naturally, a lot of important research is impossible remotely because it involves interacting with equipment, such as test tubes and particle accelerators: Good luck developing a Covid-19 vaccine sitting in front of a computer. Here, remote universities fall completely flat in the race against their physical counterparts.

Modern research also requires collaboration between large teams of specialized individuals, congregating regularly to exchange perspectives, and coordinate activity. Many people -- including me -- struggle to maintain their focus during Zoom meetings. 

The temptation to multitask is high, and the result is that the spontaneous interventions that spawn research ideas are much less likely to arise. I have personally developed many proposals for innovative scientific papers from attending in-person conferences and chatting informally with people on the fringes of a session, but 18 months into the Covid-19 pandemic, hundreds of Zoom meetings have yielded scant returns.

The deficiency of virtual research environments has been very apparent to academics whose sabbaticals have unfortunately coincided with the pandemic. Scholars typically use these rare six-month breaks from teaching to join other universities as visiting professors, so that they can enrich and expand their research horizons. 

When they talk about the virtual visiting professorships they have had to endure during 2020, most are on the verge of tears: They feel completely disconnected from their new colleagues, and describe the experience as practically useless.

Universities also have unofficial jobs that suffer even more acutely from remote interactions. The first is building social networks that serve students throughout the remainder of their lives. Students fight tooth and nail to attend institutions like Harvard and Yale not simply because of the wisdom that their professors will impart, but also because the friends they make will be CEOs, undersecretaries, ambassadors, and other people of influence 20 years down the line. 

While it is possible to build relationships over Zoom, they do not lead to the mutual trust and affection resulting from face-to-face interactions.

Critics may be thinking “good riddance” to the old boys’ network that they believe entrenches privilege, but the morality of such a system is irrelevant to the fact that people are willing to pay a lot to get into elite clubs.

Beyond the professional advantages, university-facilitated social networks are often the conduit to a long-lasting marriage. Most of us like to wed those with similar educational qualifications and cultural values, and a Microsoft Teams meeting is an awful substitute to being in the same physical study group.

Beyond this, for elite students, universities are the only way to get a top scholar to vouch for your ability and potential. The haphazard two minutes spent mingling with a professor after a lecture or when you bump into them in the cafeteria can be instrumental to the professor seeing your latent talent, and being willing to write you a personalized recommendation letter rather than the template-based ones that will never get you a place in a top doctoral program.

Put simply, remote learning undermines what students regard as important sources of value from a university education, turning tuition fees of $30,000 per year into a pipedream, and inevitably decreasing the volume of funds that college deans can allocate to research. 

This is why the remote universities that have emerged challenge traditional ones only in a narrow pedagogical sense, such as in delivering highly generic and elementary course content.

When it comes to cutting-edge research, which is the ultimate source of economic growth in the modern world, remote universities remain largely irrelevant. Open any social media feed and you will see that academics can’t wait to meet their colleagues and students in person, because exchanging advanced knowledge still works better face-to-face.

Omar Al-Ubaydli is an economist at George Mason University. He tweets @omareconomics. This article previously appeared on Al Arabiya News and has been reprinted by special arrangement.

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