There was a story in the Norwich Evening News the other day headlined “UEA students voice frustration as remote learning is retained.”
The gist was that second year undergraduate psychology students are apparently questioning why so much of their learning will still be taking place in front of a screen rather than in a lecture hall, having received an email that said that three out of five lectures will be online this coming semester.
We’ve been here before, of course. In the story the students question how effective “isolated learning” will be and the impact it could have on mental health, as well as raising concerns about the need for good internet connections in student homes.
The university says that online teaching can be preferable to face-to-face teaching in some instances, online can be more interactive as students can find asking questions intimidating in a large in-person lecture hall, and says it has planned its timetable with student input, noting that the timetable enables students to engage with their studies and manage extracurricular and community commitments.
The story does omit a mention of the big elephant in the room – the need to book out an in-person lecture theatre if those online only hours became in-person, and the realities of recruitment to some programmes in September 2021 that in some cases has meant repeating lectures several times a week, and in others has necessitated moving lectures online only. But let’s ignore Nelly for a second.
What’s all the hurry?
Post-pandemic, the ongoing problem has been that if you’ve moved halfway around the country or even the world – any hour of teaching that is only available online feels inferior. Why am I here?
And if you’re a student who struggles to leave the house, commutes from miles away or has complex commitments, any hour that is only available in-person feels inferior too. Why do I have to be there?
The problem is that for all the edtech investment, the number of hours that are genuinely capable of being delivered well in both modes simultaneously remains vanishingly small, and in most cases there ends up being two groups – those who are getting a great experience and those who are relegated to second class student citizenry.
In other words, there are those watching a dodgy live stream when the sage is on the stage taking in-person questions, and there are those who’ve travelled in only to find their lecturer hasn’t, and they’re having to use a virtual whiteboard on their phone to take part properly.
Importantly, we’re realising that this problem isn’t just about hours of teaching – the overall construction and flow of programmes, including social aspects, co-curricular components and academic support – are different for in-person and remote.
That’s not to say that fundamentally in-person programmes don’t need online elements. Google scholar, Whatsapp and Wikipedia weren’t invented in March 2020. The big thing that changed was that the resources they needed got uploaded faster, the counselling appointments they obviously wanted online were made possible, and the lecture recordings their SUs were still negotiating over actually got delivered.
It’s also not to say that fundamentally remote and distance programmes don’t need the odd get together. Working hard to create social networks and affording those students the occasional opportunity to come together was always a key part of OU programmes, is fundamental to most professional PGT programmes and makes sense in any context.
But it is to say that just wedging the two modes together and crossing fingers isn’t working – because if you need and want remote, any hours of teaching that can only be experienced or were obviously designed for in-person will disappoint – and any hours that can only be experienced or were obviously designed for remote will annoy.
You won’t turn out like that
While this debate has been playing out in the press, on local university confessions pages, and in the press statements of middle ranking ministers, a parallel debate has been playing out over the issue of working from home.
The story there is similar, albeit with slightly different framing. In the office context the new and young recruits are living in the city, and want the hands-on ropes learning, the watercooler and tea run social capital, and the serendipitous Friday night drinks with the boss – albeit that they’ll take Monday as a WFH day. The older folks with families are sick of the commute, want to see the kids and are just as productive at home, thank you very much – albeit that they’re happy to come in on a Monday for meetings.
Any dive into the HR professional press will tell you that overall office attendance is down by at least 30 percent in aggregate, but that practically combining the above interests within individual teams is proving fiendishly difficult – because there are days when nobody seems to be in the expensive office you’ve built or leased, and others when you just got haven’t enough hot desks.
Insofar as that is an interesting debate that is about cities, geography, age, demography and the possibilities of online, it is fascinating. But I think there’s a danger with that debate and its parallel in higher education.
To some extent, that debate has been about “preference” – even when remote learning or working has been framed as a(n access) need. But this winter, we need to consider whether it’s wise to be seeking to offer a choice at all. Let me explain.
I thought we had forever
During the pandemic, the urgent need was for citizens to be as far apart from each other as possible – with exceptions to keep the country running. We then found benefits in the emergency approach. But the climate and cost of living crisis demand the opposite – they suggest a need for large numbers of people to be as close together as each other to keep warm and get our usage of gas down, again albeit with exceptions for access.
Across the press in recent days have been multiple hamfisted ways of weighing up the costs of heating when staying at home versus the costs of commuting. It’s not clear that we have real clarity on that yet – but it is clear that any economic benefit from the saving on the season ticket could well be eaten up by the costs of staying at home.
Meanwhile if we return to the UEA story, if the numbers are roughly those that will fit into one of the lecture theatres on campus, I struggle to think of anything more ridiculous than 300 students sat across Norwich’s HMO stock this winter separately heating poorly insulated Victorian houses to watch a lecture in – partly for sustainability reasons, but mainly for costs reasons.
Yet at the same time, insofar as the cost of living crisis will hit students’ ability to get on the bus, the ongoing and exacerbated costs facing disabled access and the economic reality of regionally recruited students having to live an hour’s commute away this year rather than in Norwich, it would be outrageous if those lectures weren’t live, online, recorded and just as good.
In other words, what the cost of living crisis does is turn the debate about being in-person or being remote into one that is not about choice, but about economic survival.
It becomes one where offering an hour of teaching exclusively in either mode could have profound implications for a student’s economic precarity.
It’s a situation where a university that knows that its mixture in the blend is harming its students economically has a moral duty to change course, so to speak.
It’s one where the university shouldn’t even suggest that students have a choice – it needs to take a decision in the economic interests of its students.
Where a university doesn’t know the economic impacts of its mix of teaching, it will need to know – sharpish. Because it could be – depending on where they live and the sort of place they live in – that the blend of online and in-person stops just being a pain or a disappointment, and ends up being a hard economic barrier to continuation.
In the medium term, the crisis should cause us to rethink totally how we do the “on campus” experience. I’ve argued before on the site that “hybrid” only really works if a student is able to meaningfully mix being there for short bursts (where halls become hotels) and not being there for bursts (where the online offer has to be tip top).
Without that those at home will forever hate coming in, and those away from home will forever resent having to watch a lecture on a laptop in the halls they’ve shelled out for.
I don’t expect to get a guarantee
But this isn’t just about students’ energy bills and the difficult choices they’ll have to make. Providers and their partners face hard choices too.
Your university’s energy deal might not run out for a year or two, for example, but some of your partners might not be so insulated. We’re talking colleges (both private and FE) that run a franchised course, partners in Europe that operate a year abroad or thousands of businesses and other organisations that offer placements. Have all of those relationships been risk assessed on the basis of their energy precarity? As if.
On one level the Office for Students, HEFCW, the Scottish Funding Council and the Northern Ireland Executive all have their own versions of responsibility to ensure the financial stability of the sector in the interests of students. They ought to all be poking around urgently on different definitions of provider sustainability in the context of energy, and their partners’ sustainability within that. It’s kind of weird that hasn’t happened yet really.
This matters because when a service is wholly publicly funded, you sort of have to accept that quality can suffer if circumstances or political priorities change. But the deal when you consumerise is that the consumer gets what they were promised – in totality. We don’t say “well some home domiciled get their loans written off [or come for free in Scotland] so we can slack off from the paid for promises a bit”. That means we should worry about what some providers are promising on a six month timescale, let alone the gap between an open day this week and the state their course/provider might be in four or five years time.
To avert the crises, the sector may have to change its lobbying tactics. This piece in the Guardian on provider finances has a quote from UUK’s Chris Hale that says there is “only so much that can be done” before cost-cutting undermines the ability of universities to put on high-quality courses for as many students as possible. I fear that the desperate desire to pretend quality is fine now but will suffer in the future if nothing is done is an “always do always done always get always got” lobbying strategy:
The one thing universities don’t want to do is diminish quality, and ultimately they don’t want to restrict opportunity. So they are in a bind – we’ve got an increasing [school-leaver] demographic and more people who want to go to university. The pressures we saw after [A-level] results day will only increase if we don’t come up with a solution”
Arguably much talk of the impact of marketisation is overblown and confuses reputation in the market for good old fashioned craft seniority reputation. But aspect that is big and real is that universities can never confirm that things are getting terrible now, so nobody ever believes the cried-wolf quote from UUK and academic Twitter – if indeed they have even see it in the first place.
But more generally, to respond to changes in behaviour and uncertainty in the help available for students and organisations, what is also becoming clear is that we need to get used to volatility, and responding to it quickly – because decision making based on tweaking what we did last year on an annual cycle is increasingly looking unfit for purpose, and fudging it is wearing impossibly thin.
Canadian higher education expert Alex Usher describes a need for “rapid collegiality”, where beng “fast” or “nimble” does not really cut it – because significant change without deep buy-in across an institution tends to mean change which is superficial:
A term like “rapid collegiality” may seem an oxymoron, but to my mind this is mainly because this equates collegiality with soul-sucking committee processes most institutions have seen fit to use these past few decades. The trick is not to equate collegiality with committee-based discussions about rules and policies, but rather with wide community engagement on objectives and planning… The point of rapid collegiality is not to have a lot of palaver when disaster approaches; instead, leaders should understand community values and preferences at a deep enough level that it can move quickly in ways that it knows will command community support.
A lot of things got paused in the pandemic. Whether the sector’s leadership is able to find things to properly drop amid the new priorities, and “re-invigorate the spirit of collegiality through inclusive planning and engagement” in the middle of an increasingly rancorous industrial relations climate remains to be seen – but it’s almost certainly what’s needed in our new age of permanent uncertainty, and we’ll be failing our students if we pretend that stability is coming if we can just get through the next few months on hope and fudge. Again.