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Online education and why squash is NOT easier than tennis

The only sport I have played to a high standard is squash, where I was on the varsity team at Phillips Academy Andover, a prep school in New England.

Photo: Sean McNulty/Flickr

Many schools going online today are a bit like the varsity tennis team trying out for the squash team, without realising it is a different sport

The United States is NOT a squash playing country and even in the “New Englander” magazine list of the “114 Top Pastimes of New England” squash was at #114 (the editor of the magazine was a former prep school student and squash player and he extended the list to #114 to get squash on there).

It was a small and chilly squash season each winter when every Wednesday and Saturday we bundled into a van with our coach and drove up and down the icy I-95 to other prep schools and played our heart out. If we won, he would stop at the McDonalds drive-in on the way back.

Tennis was a spring sport and the varsity tennis team would show up at our early winter squash tryouts.  The tennis players were taller, stronger, more popular and believed that “squash is easier than tennis because you can hit the ball as hard as you want and it always comes back”. This meant the tennis players were also stupider.

IF you can hit the ball as hard as you want and it always comes back at you it is easier to hit a squash ball BUT it is harder for everyone to win a point. Many schools going online today due to COVID are a bit like the varsity tennis team trying out for the squash team without realising it is a different sport.

Like squash and tennis have different paths to excellence so offline and online education require different approaches for pedagogical and commercial success. Once the threat of coronavirus has waned, we will be back on campus but even so schools have a chance to evolve and the ones that do will succeed more in the post-Covid 19 era than those that do not.  Two examples of adaptation to online that could benefit even in a hybrid/back to campus environment follow.

This would bring the online experience from “worse than in class” to “as good as YouTube”

At present schools (or school groups) with multiple sections per grade are running each class separately. This means an “introduction to magnetism” physics class is being taught in each section live by a teacher online to his/her section of 20-40 students.

Why not parse out the “introduction to magnetism” unit to one of the physics teachers, give that teacher more time to prepare (because they are not doing some other units) and even invest in some graphics and sourcing of existing online content to liven up the class?

This would bring the online experience from “worse than in class” to “as good as YouTube” (which kids can’t get enough of).  Groups of schools could also make an effort to team up, record and “vote up” their favourite class and then use that content across the schools and even in future years.

The shift to online and then back eventually to a hybrid model will also impact school economics and pricing.  Markets are rational over time and it is unlikely that parents will support the same “fully on campus” price for a partially on-campus/partially hybrid experience unless schools can show the hybrid experience is better (e.g., yes your class is online but it is with the Smithsonian Museum expert in the subject and it is in HD”).

Schools therefore need to literally think outside the box in terms of sourcing pedagogy in ways that on-campus delivery could not offer or finding new ways to unbundle and price. A new delivery model will also imply a remodelled cost base in terms of flexible staffing and spend on third-party content and services versus in-house delivery of pedagogy.

Technology should allow us to achieve more and better output with less input but as it stands most schools are not achieving this outcome.

Early days, but the schools that figure out the difference between squash and tennis are more likely to win at their chosen sport.

• Karan Khemka is an occasional columnist for The PIE: He was partner and head of the international education practice at Parthenon-EY for 16 years and now serves on boards at global education companies.

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One Response to Online education and why squash is NOT easier than tennis

  1. I see a lot of tennis players on the squash court Karan…dangerous! Let’s have a hit next time you’re in Istanbul.

    By the way the US may not be a squash playing country but it’s booming compared to Europe. Lots of new centres and all the coaches are heading there. Economies of scale.

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