Let’s lose the deficit language about online education

Universities didn't choose to pivot to online, but now they have, it's opening up fresh conversations about effective pedagogies, says University of Bristol PVC Tansy Jessop.

Reading the national press at the moment you might think that universities had just performed the last rites over centuries of in-person and on-campus teaching.

The argument being pedalled by journalists whose experience of lectures was clearly more inspirational than mine, is simplistic and misleading. It suggests that a curriculum without live lectures equates to the end of all in-person teaching, as if practicals, laboratories, seminars, and tutorials do not count. Headline catching it may be; true it is not.

There are good arguments why universities are putting lectures online. Any university which has a vague interest in keeping the R rate down and being public health spirited would not wish to cram 400 students into a large airless lecture mimicking a static version of the Diamond Princess, but with younger passengers.

Kill the sacred lecture cow

But the naivety of the journalists’ critique is not about public health, it’s about what counts as higher education, and the totemic status of lectures. Anyone who has worked within an inch of higher education in the last 10 to 15 years will know that attendance at live lectures has dwindled dramatically since the installation of lecture capture which records the dulcet or droning tones of a lecture.

Students vote with their feet, and when there is no value added of engagement, interaction or inspiration, they prefer to flick open their laptops and watch the lecture at a speed and time that suits them, fast-forwarding when they are bored, and replaying when they need to rehearse the material to grasp a tricky concept.

Long before the dawn of lecture capture, Graham Gibbs wrote a swingeing critique of this most venerated of teaching genres, entitled “Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing”. His argument, in a nutshell, was that students learn very little from most of their lectures. This argument has been borne out by Astin’s research in the USA, which demonstrated that student involvement and “close contact” with lecturers and other students was the stuff of learning in higher education.

Until the virus struck, online education was largely the preserve of the Open University. No other university would have chosen to offer online education as the way to sustain some or all of its provision.

Here and there, various universities had made forays into the digital, without allowing it to affect the primacy of traditional teaching approaches. Most older universities persisted with the convention of sepia-toned lectures in the rarefied atmosphere of wood-panelled rooms; some, both old and new, stretched the convention into funky new buildings which hinted at digital futures.

In yesterday’s world, groups of students trudged up hills and crowded in corridors holding laptops in one hand, lattes in the other. They listened, took notes (or not), made halting attempts to participate, even venturing one or two questions in the lecture halls, while others, more confident, dominated conversations in seminars.

Many endured a long silence: listening, waiting, and watching. In applied subjects, students often made a more vibrant entry into disciplinary conversations, whether through building model bridges in civil engineering, or rehearsing a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. For most, conversations occurred in halls or houses of multiple occupancy, or through clubs and societies and at social gatherings.

Normal was the problem

This was higher education in the UK as we knew it before the new normal. We will all have some nostalgia for the way things were. But as many commentators have argued – “we cannot return to normal, because normal was the problem.”

Don’t get me wrong here – in person teaching is clearly a brilliant way of teaching, with all its nuance, spontaneity, sense-checking, embodiment and thrill of performance. Students in face to face contexts may enjoy an expansive experience of chatting on the way to class, in the library and laboratory, and in various hang outs, where so many deep conversations take place. This shapes who students are and who they become.

But I’m not sure universities had grasped the full potential of face to face education before the shutters came down on 23 March. Certainly, lectures were patchily attended and caught in a strange time-warp.

Online education is showing me and colleagues some fantastic things that we can do so much better and will, I hope, shape our practice as teachers in higher education forever. At the University of Bristol, we are running a series of digital design courses, and we have about 50 digital champions in schools working with the central Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching.

Today I was in a session with nearly 200 academics, and they were reflecting on their “Aha!” moments about online education from the emergency online pivot. Among this sample, some green shoots are poking through the rough ground which point to the potential of the digital to do some distinctive things. The list is not exhaustive but online education seems to:

  • personalise learning, with students working at their own pace and thoughtfully going back to material in their own time
  • trigger a shift from content-driven curricula (the idea of ‘covering content’) to carefully structured and selective bite-sized lectures with engaging tasks which
  • help students get to grips with concepts
  • draw out different voices and invite questions from students who do not routinely contribute to discussion in face to face sessions – when done well, it seems to
  • be more inclusive
  • prompt student engagement, agency and autonomy
  • take the focus off assessment and enable more learning through carefully designed tasks
  • promote participation, writing, and an enduring kind of community.

This all may sound a bit utopian in our decidedly dystopian world, but I want to make a case for shifting the narrative about online education from a deficit one.

It’s different from in-person education, and it struggles to replicate practice-based activities, and the human interactions you need to develop the skills to become a dentist, for example. But we need to find ways to ensure that we see some advantages to this different (albeit unchosen) mode of education and garner the benefits of its particular world of possibilities. From my interactions with colleagues, the most striking possibility is that the conversation has crept from the corridors and into the classroom, and that may be a very rich thing indeed.

As we set our faces to an uncertain and hybrid educational future in September, the community of academics at the University of Bristol is proud of its efforts at online education, and excited at the fresh educational winds blowing in our direction.

It won’t be easy; it won’t be cheap; but our online education won’t be a paltry imitation of old and tired genres like the lecture. And we are saving the best kinds of interaction which enable students to learn the most, for on campus teaching in small groups and in laboratories, on a scale that Covid-19 will allow, and in ways that our scientific invention might enable.

25 responses to “Let’s lose the deficit language about online education

  1. While many universities poured millions into “funky new buildings which hinted at digital futures” to attract new students, Ed Tech departments were slowly shrunk through underinvestment.
    Come the day the race begins to move online many in the sector find themselves struggling to keep up. A slew of recent job adverts evidences the panic to rebuild teams and resource the new business model.
    This is such a fantastic opportunity for change. It will be a long hard summer preparing for a new normal. It must be inclusive in so many different ways and engaging way beyond ‘sleeping at the back attendance. It can be achieved if we don’t look back to what once was and look forward beyond digital imitations of the lecture and seminar model.

    Roger Emery
    Head of Learning Technologies
    Heads of e-Learning Forum Steering Group

  2. Good points. Let’s make a new blend. Only comment ‘bringing conversations into the classroom’ can be just as difficult for the reticent who value the 1to1 in the corridor. Conversations outside classrooms (and meetings) are definitely more difficult and I miss them.

  3. Great piece. As someone doing Blended Learning for around 15 years I have seen its merits. Sure there can be drawbacks, digitalising dull learning will not transform it. But I and colleagues have found the pivot has produced excellent examples of blended learning skills underpinned with sound andragogy where students have thrived. More pieces like this please to re-shape the narrative as to what’s possible. Deficit models have little currency elsewhere, why settle on them here.

  4. It is incredibly disappointing, in what is an otherwise progressive article, to see a PVC Education fuelling the belief that lecture capture reduces attendance, a belief for which there is no systematic evidence.

  5. I am concerned that the first thing you identify as a ‘green shoot’ is precisely what students find difficult in remote learning contexts, and that is ‘working at their own pace’. It remains to be seen how students will cope with doing 60 credits a term typically spread across four modules in a remote learning context, but I am concerned that most will find the time management and self-organisation to be a huge challenge. When my Mum started OU many years ago, her tutor said ‘If you can cope with the paperwork, you’ll cope with the course material’. I think it’s a message we should bear in mind as we prepare for next year.

  6. In my experience, lecture capture has reduced attendance, and considerably so. But that’s just my experience. Attendance has slowly rotted over the past few years, especially as the semester goes on, so much so that we have set up an attendance/ engagement group to redress.

    William Proctor
    Bournemouth University

  7. The biggest determinant of lecture attendance is the quality of the experience offered in the session, not whether it is recorded or not.
    Great article. Really opportunities to create better experiences and better learning but hard to sell this when the language in the media is of ‘moving lectures online’.

  8. Lectures may be ‘dead’. which is a great pity because I love lecturing…

  9. Hear, hear! This an opportunity to weed out the tired, default, traditional methods (like ‘broadcast’ teacher-focused lectures); In their place, let’s grow our teaching designed with (student-focused) learning in mind, enabled with tools fit for that purpose. Discard the blunt old instruments we’re so fond of. Leave them in the back of the shed.

  10. To be fair, as a student, theres definitely anecdotal evidence for this amongst me and my friends. We attend almost all my lectures in person if they aren’t recorded, and far fewer if they are. I can’t speak for the statistics, which are easy to manipulate, just from experience.

  11. The invention of the printing press rendered the lecture obsolete, but it’s hung on in there for centuries since, for whatever reason, so I think it will survive this latest challenge too.

  12. Never over the last couple of months of teaching on-line did I see my students, see whether they were showing emotions of interest or boredom. Almost never did students interrupt with a question or comment, or do so afterwards. When I share my slides, students do not see my gestures and facial expressions that can amplify the points I am trying to make, or the way I position myself to encourage them to see what I see. Even if you could watch all that, it is not the same – sitting in a theatre seeing actors play in front of you is not the same as watching a recording on television of the same play. Higher education is much more than reciting content, the learning often takes place at unexpected moments, when it “clicks” maybe just because of the way the lecturer acts or because of the mood in the room. There are certainly benefits of recording lectures, for students who had legitimate reasons for not being able to attend them, but it is not the same and on-line teaching does not fully capture – or improve – the experience of in situ face-to-face teaching and learning.

  13. Dear Tansy,

    Thank you, this is exactly what we all need right now. Your article will be circulated across the university to promote the Hybrid Education agenda we are implementing.at Surrey. It was an absolute pleasure working with you and I am so glad that we have such a great alignment and equity in our thinking.

    Regards
    Osama

  14. Here you go: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10734-018-0275-9 “A study exploring the impact of lecture capture availability and lecture capture usage on student attendance and attainment” Edwards et al. (2018).

    This completely matches my experience. Attendance is lower. Good students use lecture capture as an added benefit. Poor students don’t attend and then either don’t watch the lecture capture or watch a dozen the day before the exam. On the other hand, students like and now demand it.

  15. So much to unpack.

    If you were joking, it IS funny.

    If you weren’t, it’s TRUE, many of us love to lecture – which has two sides – 1) it’s a little self-indulgent thinking we have endless wisdom to impart (we don’t), 2) Enthusiasm about our chosen area communicated through excited lecturing is authentic and desirable. Good on you!

    Lecturing isn’t dead. It should be shorter – studies show 15-20 minutes max and our brains turn off. Should be punctuated with some kind of exercise, memorization, interaction. In pandemic times, lectures should be recorded as audio and video (video should decribe the pics – don’t make people watch) and open and mobile accessible. Let students decide when/how to consume. Let them pause and take notes. Let them comment and discuss. Give students agency over how they receive your wisdom. They want to hear you – help them.

    Finally, many folks who think they are good lecturers can still learn a thing or two. If you practice something poorly, you remain a poor performer. Watch better lecturers. Upgrade your lecturing skills. Take classes, read books, reflect and get better at it.

  16. Ok, was referring to comment “Lectures may be ‘dead’. which is a great pity because I love lecturing…” Commenting system didn’t place this as a reply.

  17. Well said, there seems to be a glut of people who are trying to justify a situation that we have been forced to adopt. A well constructed face-to-face lecture, including activities and interaction can never be replaced by online, impersonal, teaching.

  18. Deficit models have never worked, as shown many many years ago in language acquisition studies. So this piece is a step in the right direction. At the same time, there is no such thing as ‘a’ classroom lecture as there is no such thing as ‘an’ online lecture. There is a whole spectrum in both categories and students deserve and should be offered the good end of the spectrum from both, if they are asked for the full fees.

  19. If this whole experience drags the HE sector pedagogically into the 21st century, even if it is by using principles, approaches and methods that have been actively pursued in most other areas since well before the end of the 20th, it will be a good thing. My experience of HE management, however, makes me cynical that this will happen. Good online learning is expensive and involves massive amounts of training and support, not just good course development. As Roger Emery writes above, IT departments have been gutted, and they will have huge amounts to do. I have never seen any real evidence that the sector as a whole is likely to provide that support. I hope it does.

  20. When I was working on the Keele PGCE courses, we used to explore how changing terminology could shift perceptions of how to deliver. I.e. instead of labelling lecture/seminar etc, it could be thought of as a block of time where learning takes place.

  21. In your group, take into account the needs of people with language or literacy issues when making your choices and ensure that videos of lectures include either subtitlies or slides containing key words and key phrases. This is a simple way to make your materials more accessible.

  22. My comment immediately above, ‘Well said…’, was referring to the response from Jacco van Loon (4 June).

  23. It is time for university academics to stop pretending that COVID-19 will go away soon and they can go back to “normal” lectures. I gave my last lecture in 2008 and moved my teaching online. In 2019 the Australian National University opened a new award winning building, designed for flexible learning. So I designed a blended learning module, which included face to face workshops in the new facility. But the module was designed so it could be delivered entirely online, in case my international students could not get to campus due to a regional crisis. So when COVID-19 closed the campus, I was able to activate the online contingency already built into the learning design. But I was only able to do this because I had spent a considerable amount of time and money learning how to do e-learning. https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2020/03/designing-in-on-line-learning-option.html

  24. Really useful article. We do seem to be trapped in ways of thinking about the higher education experience which may not help us to adjust to whatever becomes the ‘new normal’. For example, I noted the comment above which contrasts the “well constructed face-to-face lecture” with “online, impersonal, teaching”. This is a false dichotomy – e.g. online does not have to be ‘impersonal’. My very first experience of university lectures (on the receiving end) was one of the most impersonal experience I ever had in HE. We now have the expertise and facilities to make the best of both worlds – let’s not miss the opportunity.

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