This is a guest blog, written by Garry Honey, Author and trainer, founder of consultancy Chiron risk. Garry approaches risk from a psychological perspective using latest thinking from behavioural economics and the ‘politics of fear’. Although often treated as compliance obligation, risk reporting offers an opportunity to explore fears of future unknowns, a major cause of risk aversion in boards.
Garry has a background in strategic communications. He helps corporate boards articulate intangible value to stakeholders: reputational risk & sustainability risk are especially significant given current interest in ESG ratings for comparative investment funds.
The pandemic has caused disruption to working practices and patterns, some of which will be temporary but others more structural or evolutionary. Physical gathering in cities for work and leisure has been abruptly replaced by digital distancing with significant societal implications. On-line businesses in retail and entertainment have profited from enforced virus control measures while high street retail and hospitality venues have been forced to close.
Shares in digital conferencing providers like Zoom or on-line grocery fulfilment like Ocado have done well in the past year. Those held in restaurant chains, cafes and pubs will have done less well because the hospitality sector by its very nature has limited scope to switch to digital products. Pubs have been hard hit because they provide a social hub which cannot be replicated on-line, despite the fact that food and drink, as commodities, can be supplied as take-away products.
The social value of the pub has long been recognised despite the fact this value is intangible. Pubs that fall empty can be attractive to housing developers, but the social value of the pub can be protected by ACV planning status: Asset of Community Value. This allows time for the pub to be saved for community use so the asset as a gathering point is not lost to a community for ever. The pandemic poses the question elsewhere over what might be lost in social value if the physical world should be out-of-bounds for the long term. Let’s look at education.
Firstly education as a commodity lends itself easily to digital delivery; the classroom can switch from the physical to the virtual without any significant deterioration in product quality. Supply and demand factors balance out, but there is a significant difference between primary, secondary, further and HE. My own experience is with Executive Education and business schools which I’ll cover later; however let’s look at what is lost when the physical classroom is replaced by the virtual one.
At primary and secondary school level the physical classroom provides a sense of identity for pupils in a year group or academic stream. Sitting at home and watching the teacher on screen doesn’t provide the same sense of belonging, although the teaching content will be almost identical. Teachers in both private and state sector interviewed since the first lock-down claim that on-line delivery is more tiring for them, but they have learnt to accept it as a work-around solution. Most schoolchildren are adaptable and take to a switch from classroom to zoom lessons in their stride.
The school classroom is a valuable collection point for the state to execute its duty of care and there are political reasons schools have remained open during lock-downs. This is partly to free parents to continue their own work where possible and to provide much needed structure in the daily life of children as well as keep teachers in work. The classroom in primary and secondary education is an essential building block of state education and will never be permanently replaced.
Let’s look at universities, colleges and educational institutes serving young adults for whom the discipline of the classroom is less of a necessity than the academic content. Most universities switched to on-line course delivery this year to prove that they could justify the £9,500 annual teaching fee without lecture theatres, seminars and tutorial groups on campus. Many students felt short-changed as they forfeited much of the social camaraderie of student life, but overall the academic product could be delivered virtually in all but the most practical subjects. Long term is there a future for university campus buildings if on-line learning becomes the new norm?
Universities in the UK since 2013 have become business units competing with each other for student customers, so the student experience is not something to be ignored in a competitive market. The quality of teaching becomes a more significant determinant and for the universities the attraction and retention of quality teaching staff. How keen are staff to deliver teaching in future completely on line, is it rewarding or satisfying enough for them in a virtual world?
Education provision in business schools, and specifically Executive Education programmes, is a niche area where not every player feels comfortable. Some concentrate on executives in the MBA market and few tackle the international market of senior executives via open and custom programmes. The pandemic called an abrupt halt to demand in this area and some players were faster than others in switching to on-line learning to replace classroom-based courses. How important is the classroom to this type of audience; is something lost if programmes are only delivered on-line?
Twenty years ago I did some research for leading European business school on who buys Exec Ed programmes, who attends them, and how is the course value viewed by the paying clients. This business school is still ahead of the game designing product based on client needs not on its academic faculty resource. Even today I see leading schools developing fascinating programmes but the delivery team is not the sales and marketing team so client satisfaction is ultimately at risk.
On-line delivery works as well as the classroom but it depends what the delegate expects from the course. A residential one provides the opportunity for escape and reflection plus the opportunity to meet peers from other organisations and make career enhancing contacts. None of this is possible with an on-line programme so much of its social value is lost as a meeting point. Is this important or can the business school still profit from on-line only delivery and dispense with the classroom?
The point of selecting education as a sector is to show that although the product is versatile enough to survive the switch from physical to virtual delivery, something inevitably is ‘lost in translation’ . It is not about how we teach but how we learn, and specifically the environment most conducive to achieving this. For many people, self-learning is distraction free and time efficient, however for some the absence of fellow students or delegates devalues the educational experience as a social phenomenon. It is not about the classroom as a place but the cohort as a collective.
This social value implicit in education is important not just for the student or ‘educatee’ but also the provider or ‘educator’ which may be a college, university or business school. This has implications for the resource mix and utilisation over time, both places (buildings) and people (staff). There is probably a reason hidden in the numbers why there was only one Open University. Perhaps there is a limit to the attraction of distance learning? One thing is for sure, universities will have to examine their business models with a much more critical eye in the wake of the pandemic. It certainly has made an impact on the future of work in education.