Online learning is bad. That’s the headline – online learning has been something of a disaster. Whilst it’s hard to see what universities could’ve done differently this year, students are, for once, pretty unanimous – we want to get back on campus.
Universities, however, seem slightly less keen. Instead, they’re promising “blended learning” – teaching that involves both in-person and online components. Definitions of the probable extents of each are scarce, yet they’re continuing to throw the term around at any opportunity.
In practice, “blended learning” could range from everything taught in person, with recorded lectures available for those who want them, to a totally online experience for some students with the odd in-person catch up. But here’s the nub of the issue – for most students on most courses, there is still minimal clarity as to how much will be in-person, and when this will actually happen.
This is an ambiguity that suits universities. Keeping quiet over what teaching will look like next year allows them to change their minds late on, or – alternatively, and slightly more nefariously – mislead freshers into believing that university will all be normal again in September, before ambushing them with informal lockdowns, hi-vis-clad security staff, and an absence of time on campus.
Undergraduate freshers are likely to suffer most from online learning. Despite evidence that in-person contact hours correlate with good mental health, because that first year doesn’t usually count, if and when there is a decision to be made over where to deploy in-person tutor resources and how to allocate study space, freshers will inevitably suffer.
I haven’t had an in-person lecture, seminar or tutor meeting for a year and a half. Some of my more scientific friends, with degrees that bring “value” to society, have had some in-person lab sessions and seminars, but even these are rare, cherished events.
I understand why humanities students aren’t a priority – we can easily go online, and there’s minimal public sympathy for, say, History of Art students. Fundamentally, though, we aren’t getting the taught university experience we signed up for when we learn online.
Despite what many universities say about innovation, much of the online education that students have experienced has been poor. For many, the quality of lectures drops dramatically when put online – most staff don’t accept questions during the lecture, choosing to avoid any interactivity.
There is nothing wrong with recording lectures and making them available online – and for many students that kind of access is a lifeline. I knew friends who, pre-Covid, attended a lecture and re-watched the recording afterwards to improve their understanding. This level of commitment is somewhat beyond that of many students – most online lecture-watching was a tool to avoid the slog onto campus on a grey November morning – but the choice was appreciated, as was the option to double lectures’ speed when listening to a particularly pedestrian tutor. Recorded lectures also offered the opportunity to revise more effectively during exam season, particularly for students for whom English is not their first language.
Lectures and seminars
Hours of contact that were previously lectures but now converted to “online” have not been great for many students. Conducted through a dizzying array of technical methods (Teams, Zoom, or uploads onto student learning portals), some of the most tech-savvy tutors have struggled to communicate their ideas across. It’s hard to be inspired by a face on a screen.
Worryingly, in-house online lectures often do not offer anything better than the array of Internet-based lecture resources. Why should a lecture be conducted by a University of Leeds lecturer, for example, when one professor at UCL did it better in 2015? If lectures go permanently digital – and there are no guarantees that this won’t happen – universities will lose some of their individuality and the student-staff link.
The real issue, though, comes with online seminars. Many staff have struggled to teach online, especially when it comes to asking questions, dealing with “raised hands”, and distributing students between breakout rooms. Meanwhile, the possibility of robust debate and idea-swapping – the sort of thing that university is meant to be about – grows ever fainter.
Attendance also drops significantly for seminars when they’re put online. This can’t be directly blamed on the universities, of course – student sleep patterns are all over the place – but reflects the limited appetite amongst undergraduates for digital education. It’s simply not what we want – yet, as students, our concerns are seemingly being ignored.
Some teaching cannot go online. Despite what many universities have claimed, Chemistry students cannot perform experiments from their bedroom, trainee nurses will struggle to learn if they are barred from the local hospitals, and how will geographers flaunt their coloured pencils over Zoom?
But the fear amongst students is that blended learning at a university level may come to mean “online as default”. Chemistry students may lose their lectures and seminars, but the labs will remain. For humanities students – who are usually already subsidising their peers – in-person learning could easily totally vanish.
Ultimately, much of what has passed for online learning has been detested by students, and the idea of “blended learning” is a seriously damaged concept – but it is a potential source of significant savings for universities themselves. High-value land in expanding city centres becomes available, freed up by the sale of now irrelevant lecture halls, whilst lectures can be repeated online year after year, reducing the number of staff necessary. Overseas students, with their higher fees, can attend in far greater numbers, without ever having to leave their home countries.
This may sound like a conspiracy theory. I hope it is. But given the very clear preference for a return to pre-pandemic university teaching from students, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that universities simply don’t care all that much. Commentators frequently compare students to customers – a victim of the commercialisation of higher education. But what company would treat its punters so poorly?
University education isn’t a free market, and it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that universities are collectively lowering their own standards to make their lives easier. If all universities in the Russell Group multilaterally offer online-only lectures, for example, there is less pressure to reduce the online component. In the long run, I’m sure universities will return to something more like the before times. But I fear that the next year or two is unlikely to see any real mindset shift away from inadequate blended learning.