28.09.2021 change 28.09.2021

A generation of students will experience university only through computers, warns academic

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A leading academic has warned against remote learning at universities, saying ‘we are facing a threat of a generation of students who can not imagine a university other than through a computer.

Professor Aleksander Nalaskowski from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń told PAP that he is now ‘very concerned’ after 1.5 years of remote education of students.

PAP: Professor, there is little talk about the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in higher education. For 1.5 years, most universities operate mainly remotely, completely differently from the functioning we have known for years. Do you have concerns that we will all suffer consequences of this way of educating the future intellectual elites of the nation?

Aleksander Nalaskowski: We do not know at all what these consequences will be and how long they will persist. We have no previous experience of this kind. While we have numerous studies, and now even conferences regarding the effects of pandemics in common education, that is, primary and high schools, there is almost nothing that would concern higher education. We do not know how the pandemic will affect this whole process. University studies are a more culture-forming environment than any school. This includes student clubs, student culture, events. For a large part of the academic youth, studies are also a radical form of becoming independent, because they suddenly leave home and are responsible for themselves. In high school they were addressed by their first names, and suddenly it is 'mister' and 'miss'. They must become responsible. Nobody goes out of their way and repeats everything five times, but later the lecturer will mercilessly verify their knowledge during exams. This is what students have been deprived of.

PAP: Indeed. We can already talk about students of undergraduate (six semester) studies who missed three semesters of in-person education.

A.N.: Precisely. Three semesters of studies are behind us that were not exactly studies. Let me give you an example. As a lecturer, I am strict when it comes to punctuality. I am never late for lectures and I do not use the imaginary, mythical academic quarter. I require the same of students. I also require them not to come to classes with coffee mugs, not to chew gum, and to leave their coats in the locker room. This is not even an educational aspect, as you called it, but transferring a certain academic culture, academic savoir-vivre. We have lost this aspect. Students connected online. Some of them would stay in bed during a lecture, while I was always wearing a shirt and tie in front of the camera. Academic socialization is also the formation of Polish intelligence that will have to pass on these standards at some point.

PAP: A young person crossing the university gates often passes a kind of initiation, a transition into adulthood. There is not doubt about that. But young people at universities also gain competence that will be extremely important in their subsequent professional life. What about them?

A.N.: What will be the effects? We will see it in a few years. We are beginning to feel the effects of education reform after 6-8 years. This situation can be similar. We will see when these people come into their professions. The comedy TV series The Forty-Year-Old from the 1970s made fun of TV education and correspondence high school. That concept was widely laughed at.

PAP: Over the last few years we have been hearing that students increasingly search for knowledge online. Many of them would ultimately reach the university library. They have now been deprived of that as well.

A.N.: Library training, this special academic initiation, is obligatory in the first year of studies, but if the semester started remotely, the new students will have not set foot in the library. As yet not the whole book collection is digitised. There is also something called the cult of library. The constitutional element of each university is the main library. How can you study without knowing where the library is, what it looks like, what atmosphere it has, how you rent a book? It's inconceivable for me. But there are more questions. Would you want a doctor who received this kind of education to treat your child?

PAP: There were jokes about representatives of many professions who finished remote studies in the province. Should we now expect an abundance of 'painted' doctors, engineers and specialists in other fields?

A.N.: We will feel it when, after seeing a doctor, people will be more ill than before, or when bridges and houses start collapsing. I taught many people to ride a horse, but I would not attempt to do it remotely. At a certain stage, it is difficult to separate the transmission of academic savoir-vivre from transferring knowledge. In every situation, be it home or school or university, it requires a certain entourage, creating appropriate conditions. The huge part of the university experience are didactic rooms created for the more knowledgeable one to talk, and those aspiring to knowledge to listen. How is my image on the screen different from a YouTuber's image? This is like wanting to eat a culinary TV show. We are currently not able to estimate the effects of the pandemic in relation to universities. I suspect that these attempts will be quite moderate, to avoid drastic conclusions. Because they would show that we only wasted money. Perhaps it should have been suspended completely instead of pretending to study. I only know that the rectors were in a forced situation. I do not envy them...

PAP: Or maybe unfortunately everyone will get used to this shoddiness?

A.N.: It was undoubtedly the situation that made everyone lazy, spoiled everyone. I am retiring in six months and my younger colleagues will struggle with it. I will still be treated by the generation of physicians who have received a normal education, services by officials who were educated normally. But the younger generation will deal with problems that you can only imagine today. The worst thing, in my opinion, will be absolutely unexpected. We can imagine various scenarios, but something quite unforeseen may still happen. And it does not have to be good at all.

PAP: Do you thing that there is a chance for a certain reflection on the higher education system and its current functioning?

A.N.: Perhaps an awakening of sorts will happen. But before it does, we will lose more years of young people.

PAP: It would probably be the worst if we pretended that education at universities was a decent level.

A.N.: We are already largely living in the world of pretend. Remote medical consultations are nothing but pretend medicine. I am a DIY-er, and I buy most of the goods without seeing a seller. But I met a legion of couriers this year.

PAP: If the pandemic persists, is there a real scenario that we will have a whole generation, whole years of students who do not know the university at all, so they do not really know what they are missing?

A.N.: Unfortunately I doubt that the pandemic will go away. I estimate that we will teach in person for more or less two months, then the will have hybrid teaching, and then we will suspend classes again. We will finally see the effects of holidays, mass events, etc. We are facing a threat of an entire generation of students who can not imagine a university other than through a computer. (PAP)

Interview by Tomasz Więcławski

Author: Tomasz Więcławski

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