Connect with us

Pandemic changes the pattern of higher education

Haifa University, Israel, Pandemic, COVID

Oped

Pandemic changes the pattern of higher education

Prof. Tamar Almog and Prof Oz Almog have written a book titled ‘Academia: All the lies’, where in the introduction the scholars have stated:

Landscape-altering shockwaves are a feature not only of nature, but are also found in human society. The source of the powerful energy propelling them is nearly always the bursting on the scene of a new technology which dwarfs whatever came before. It rapidly changes entrenched social patterns, and leads us to a crossroads characterized by a mixture of desperation and hope, conservatism and innovation, passivity and activity – and especially instability and uncertainty. Charles Dickens best described such sociological circumstances in his classic historical novel “A Tale of Two Cities” (1859):

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us”.

Bizarrely, almost mystically, the Hebrew edition of this book came out about a week before the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis. While the publisher’s PR department was distributing copies to the media, most Israeli citizens were placed under home quarantine and bookstores, like nearly all other establishments, remained deserted. The book could, of course, be delivered or purchased in digital versions, but by this stage no one was thinking of buying anything other than food, medicine or toilet paper.

But what was initially perceived as a bad case of the author’s curse quickly turned into a blessing in disguise, or more accurately, a reinforcement of the book’s thesis on academia. It promptly became apparent that the forced quarantine, which kept millions in their homes and forced them to increase their use of digital media, was about to become a particle accelerator for the accessibility and flexibility which is revolutionizing how we are provided service, how we work, and how we study. In fact, everything we had predicted for the future of science and higher education now seems on the brink of fulfillment, and at a much faster pace than we expected.

The fact that institutions of higher education were forced to turn around and immediately make the switch to online studies turned the spotlight on our book. It was covered extensively by Israeli media and, despite the impaired market, quickly became a bestseller.

In mid-May, we were invited by the Council of Higher Education in Israel to give an online lecture on the book to the directors of all organizations devoted to the advancement of teaching in Israeli institutions. A short while later, the Universities of Tel Aviv and Haifa held an online panel on the book and the changes expected in academia following the coronavirus crisis. The Haifa panel included a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, the president of a technological college, and one of the most prominent authors in Israel, who is also a professor in the humanities. While we were writing a book on the fall of academia, never in our wildest dreams would we have expected that the book would be received by way of webinars attended by hundreds—gatherings at which no one would need any convincing that we are entering a new era for science and education. 

Academia—named after the Athenian hero Academus—was born in ancient Greece as a meeting point for lectures (historians unanimously agree that this is where Plato spoke with his students), but only in the 17th century did the ancient term turn into a common phrase among European scholars. With time, it became a generalizing synonym for the mechanisms of science and higher education in the modern age.

The development of academia from ancient times until today is a fascinating evolutionary story, encompassing continents, nations and cultures. It is a relay race of the human spirit which has launched humanity towards immense achievements.

But success is not invulnerable, and that which has worked in the past will not necessarily work in the future—especially when a substitute is found.

Few in our day are able to imagine a world without institutions of higher education, but remember that in the not-so-distant past, no one could imagine soldiers without swords, farmers without horses, or mail without paper.

People are able to comprehend and digest small changes in their lives, but find it difficult to accept the idea that even those basic and established arrangements which they have always taken for granted will one day disappear. Universities are somewhat taken for granted by many of us.

We live in a time that has seen a rapid rise in the percentage of academics among the general population, a consistent improvement in quality of life and lifespan, and an explosion of innovations and inventions. It seems that science is more successful than ever, and that higher education is blossoming. But this picture is misleading.

Global academia is in the throes of its broadest crisis yet. It is an economic, intellectual, organizational, moral, and educational crisis, and it is not a malfunction or some kind of temporary failure. The traditional university model, with roots in the Middle Ages, is in advanced stages of erosion and is sending off distress signals because it, like other traditional models in our times, is being subjected to structural changes. We are in the midst of a period of immense change, in which the old is no longer suitable and a substitute, born of dynamics of friction, is in its infancy.

Although the crisis in higher education is the focus of conversation in the academic community, and has engendered an endless array of papers, reports and books on the issue, its true dimensions and its dramatic consequences are hidden from most of the public, and in truth, from most of the world’s scientists and professors as well. Academia is still deep in denial, misleading itself and the public, and is therefore finding it difficult to understand the true nature of things, and to reach educated and resolute decisions.

The purpose of this book is to put the puzzle pieces together to form a panoramic overview of the state of higher education worldwide. However, this is not only a critical essay, meant to open eyes to the dawning of a new era, but also an optimistic projection, and in some ways, a recommendation for a rejuvenating model of research and education suitable for the 21st century.

The human race is fast approaching a historical turning point in which the academic bubble will be burst wide open, institutions of higher education will lose their monopoly, and a scientific career will look much different than it does now.

Before we get into the thick of things, we must emphasize a few points for our readers:

 This book deals with the most common and prominent phenomena in academia around the world, especially in leading scientific countries, and not with the nuances which uniquely characterize each nation and institution.

 The many footnotes and endnotes woven throughout the book include not only references for the data and insights contained in the text, but also professional literature meant to expand the reader’s view. In this sense, the book also serves as a collection of important sources for any discussion of the current and future state of academia.

 Our book is fairly expansive compared to standard nonfiction (and we apologize to our readers for that), but it’s not that, to paraphrase the great Mark Twain, we would write you a shorter book but we didn’t have the time.

In fact, it is just the opposite. After a research and writing process which took up three years, we tried to summarize as much as we could for our readers the complex landscape of a complex system in a complex time. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of the academic ecosystem, and an omission of any one of these would have caused us to stray further from the goal.

Furthermore, because there is a sort of grave “indictment” here, we felt compelled to anchor it in as wide a range as possible of evidence, and to present arguments from different angles.

But there is another reason for the expansiveness of the text. Most of the public—including a large proportion of scientists—is not familiar, or only partially familiar, with the meandering mechanism of global academia.

The creaks in the old system cannot be comprehended, nor can the necessity of changing the system, without first understanding its basic principles.

Therefore, we devoted more than a few pages in each chapter for an overview of this kind. This book is thus also an ethnographic document for those interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of academia.

 The comprehensive overview we have put together is based on thousands of sources: papers, books, surveys, reports, informational websites, discussion platforms, and blogs. In order to get a sense of the field and hone our insights, we have interviewed 212 academics of various levels of seniority and from a number of countries: Israel, the United States, England, Scotland, Australia, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Greece, Japan and Taiwan. Most of those interviewed requested that they remain anonymous, and we therefore decided not to use any names. Here we must note: the fear held by many faculty members, including senior academics, of exposing themselves is a symptom of the grim state of academia. We hope that a time will come in which scientists and lecturers will feel safe to freely express themselves regarding any and all problems and difficulties in their workplace.

During our visits to campuses around the world, we also spoke with many students, who added insights from the point of view of those doing the studying. We compounded these observations with those collected a few years earlier during our research on Generation Y in Israel. This study of the younger generation, published in 2016, made waves and stirred a wide-ranging debate among the general public, as well as in academia (the English version of the book was published in 2019).

For us, this book was a grueling and complicated journey. We made an effort to base our diagnosis and prognosis on as wide an infrastructure as possible of data (which was not always available or complete), but nothing is over yet. Naturally, some errors, inaccuracies, and omissions were committed. We would be grateful for any comments and additions by readers, and we will do our best to include these in the next edition. Either way, we see the book as fertile ground for a debate on an issue whose significance to society, and to all of humanity, is hard to underestimate.

A personal note in conclusion: we feel very lucky that we have gotten the opportunity to be citizens in a democratic country which encourages critical debate, and to work at a scientific institution which allows free research. But by the same token, we are heartbroken that in the current state of global academia, it is highly doubtful that younger researchers, without a tenured position and under pressure to publish as fast as they can, would dare take such a project upon themselves. We hope our book contributes to changing this reality.

About the authors

Prof. Oz Almog

Prof. Oz Almog was born in Haifa in 1960. He is a graduate of the Hebrew Reali High School in Haifa, where he met his future wife Tamar.

Almog served as an intelligence officer in the Israeli Defense Forces. He would later (during his reserve duty) be counted among the founders of the Population Behavior branch of the Home Front Command.

He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Sociology and an M.A. in Sociology from Tel Aviv University and a Ph.D in Sociology at Haifa University in 1995 (summa cum laude).

His academic career began at the Yezreel Valley Academic College, where he was among the founders of the college’s Sociology department. In 2002, he moved to the Department of Israel Studies at the University of Haifa. He received his professorship at the University of Haifa in 2003, and has continued to research and teach at this university until the present day.

Almog is a sociologist and historian of Israeli society. His expertise is in macro-research, with an emphasis on identities, cultures, lifestyles, folklore, and generational shifts. He has published numerous articles and books (most of them in Hebrew) which have made waves among the general public. Many of his publications have won prestigious prizes and become best-sellers. His books on the Sabra generation and its role as a national symbol (The Sabra – The Creation of The New Jew. The University of California Press, 2000; Farewell to “Srulik” – Changing Values Among the Israeli Elite. Zmora-Bitan and University of Haifa Press, 2004) are considered textbooks and socio-historical classics of Israeli society.

His book Generation Y – As if there is No Tomorrow, Modan Publishing House, 2016 (co-authored with Dr. Tamar Almog) – has generated extensive media and public response (reviews, interviews, articles, thousands of posts and shares on social media, lectures, etc.) and has become one of the biggest non-fiction bestsellers of the last decade in Israel.

One of the expressions of this book’s success was two television documentary series (on channels 11 and 13) that dealt with this generation’s characteristics as portrayed in Almog’s study. The term ‘Generation Y’, which at the time was only known to a handful of people in Israel, became a common phrase in Israeli discourse, and the generation gap became a widely discussed issue in countless forums. [The English version was published under the title: Generation Y – Generation Snowflake?]

His new bestseller Academia: All the Lies – What Went Wrong in the University Model and What Will Come in its Place, 2020 (co-written with Dr. Tamar Almog) received a groundbreaking public response in Israel, as it was reviewed extensively by all major media — press, radio, television, social media, etc.

Prof Almog is a passionate and socially engaged researcher, and is considered one of the prominent commentators and lecturers in his field. In the past, he published a regular opinion column on the widely read Israeli news site Ynet; today, he offers his take on current events via his popular Facebook page (many of his posts have gone viral and elicited responses from various news media).

Among his other positions, he has served as a board member for the publishing house of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, a senior research fellow for the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy at the Technion (2007-2017), the co-chair of UNESCO’s Chair for Multicultural Education at the University of Haifa (2010-2017), and the chair of the Israeli Ministry of Education’s Professional Committee for Sociology Studies (2010-2016), and has taught an introductory course on Israeli society at the National Security College (2015-2016).

Prof Almog is regularly interviewed by Israeli and international news outlets on various phenomena in Israeli society, and has delivered lectures at hundreds of conferences and seminars on the subject. He has also provided his consulting services to museums, research institutes, news media, and numerous public and private institutions.

In 2008, in honor of the State of Israel’s 60th anniversary, Almog and his wife, Dr. Tamar Almog, created the popular-informational website “People Israel – The Guide to Israeli Society.” The website provided a detailed overview of the many sectors of Israeli society through text and images, and was visited by thousands of users every week. It operated with the support of UNESCO and was sponsored by the Technion’s Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy; in 2008, it was named one of the year’s 10 best websites by Ynet. The site was shut down in 2018 after an attack by hackers.

In 2012, Oz and Tamar established the “Spirit of Israel Gallery,” which specialized in digital exhibits focusing on Israeli ethnography.

Prof Oz Almog states his professional mission thus

“I am passionately curious about human behavior, and believe that I have the luck and honor to make a living in the world’s most remarkable profession, which is also my hobby. I have always aimed to reveal social realities to my readers and listeners that would otherwise be invisible to them. The beauty of the social sciences is that they reveal the hidden complexity in our everyday live.. Israeli society, the central object of my research, is a sort of “amusement park” for social scientists, because, as the classic Israeli song goes, “No moment is ever dull/either a scandal or a festival.”

Dr. Tamar Almog

Dr. Tamar Almog was born in Haifa in 1961. She is a graduate of the Hebrew Reali High School in Haifa, where she skipped a grade, and where she met her future husband Oz.

She holds a B.A. in Agriculture from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an M.A. in Biology from the Technion. She received her Ph.D in Education in Science & Technology from the Technion in 1992.

Her academic career began at the University of Haifa in 1994, where she has continued to teach until the present day (in the Department of Learning, Instruction and Teaching Education).

Dr. Almog specializes in alternative instruction, educational systems, and youth culture. She was appointed to the first team of experts to provide support for the integration of computers into the Israeli public school system.

In 2002, she established the Unit for Online Learning at the University of Haifa; she served as the head of the unit until 2006.

Tamar was appointed a senior research fellow at the Technion’s Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy (2007-2017) and was selected as the co-chair of UNESCO’s Chair for Multicultural Education at the University of Haifa (2010-2017).

In 2008, in honor of the State of Israel’s 60th anniversary, Dr. Almog and her husband, Prof. Oz Almog, created the popular-informational website “People Israel – The Guide to Israeli Society.” The website provided a detailed overview of the many sectors of Israeli society through text and images, and was visited by thousands of users every week. It operated with the support of UNESCO and was sponsored by the Technion’s Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy; in 2008, it was named one of the year’s 10 best websites by Ynet. The site was shut down in 2018 after an attack by hackers.

In 2012, Tamar and Oz established the “Spirit of Israel Gallery,” which specialized in digital exhibits focusing on Israeli ethnography. Tamar was appointed the primary curator of the gallery.

Her book Generation Y – As if there is No Tomorrow, Modan Publishing House, 2016 (co-authored with Prof. Oz Almog) – has generated extensive media and public response (reviews, interviews, articles, thousands of posts and shares on social media, lectures, etc.) and has become one of the biggest non-fiction bestsellers of the last decade in Israel.

One of the expressions of this book’s success was two television documentary series (on channels 11 and 13) that dealt with this generation’s characteristics as portrayed in Almog’s study. The term ‘Generation Y’, which at the time was only known to a handful of people in Israel, became a common phrase in Israeli discourse, and the generation gap became a widely discussed issue in countless forums. [The English version was published under the title: Generation Y – Generation Snowflake?]

Her new bestseller Academia: All the Lies – What Went Wrong in the University Model and What Will Come in its Place, 2020 (co-written with Prof. Oz Almog) received a groundbreaking public response in Israel, as it was reviewed extensively by all major media — press, radio, television, social media, etc.

Dr. Tamar Almog states her professional mission thus

“I believe that it is both possible and essential to teach every subject clearly, no matter how complex or complicated it may be. Innovations of all kinds have always intrigued me, especially innovations that make life easier, provide more effective solutions to problems, and inspire curiosity and creativity. New technologies have never fazed me, and it was only natural that I would immediately adopt and integrate the computer revolution into the field of higher education, a field to which I have always been drawn. I worked with a personal computer and advanced software in the fields of writing and training back when those were in their infancy and rarely used. I felt that I could—indeed, was obligated to—help implement them on a larger scale. It was for this reason that, rather than going into research, I chose an academic professional track that focuses on teaching the teachers.

The online revolution has opened new and exciting possibilities for teaching, and has tightened the connections between image, sound, and text. In general, I believe that an aesthetic environment contributes significantly to the functionality of the learning environment, and that every educator and teacher must work towards making his or her skills in this area more sophisticated.

It upsets me greatly that the education system is collapsing, primarily due to its conservatism and its rigidity. Sadly, much of the blame falls on academia, which is so enthusiastic to publish scholarly papers (that almost no one will ever read) that it has become detached from the real world and has not led the way in initiating the necessary changes.”

Academics is one of the many sectors where the Covid-19 pandemic will leave a permanent footprint. For those who are interested in how the global pandemic will shape higher education, especially the methodology used in Universities, should definitely give this book a read.

Hanzalah Choudhury

Hanzalah Choudhury is a student of Engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

Click to comment

Leave a Comment

More in Oped

To Top