Higher education strategists must now pivot to consider what post-Covid teaching will look like. Will warp speed, flipped innovations actually stick; is yet more change necessary; or will the sector revert back to less popular lecture-based learning?
Afforded the ability to virtually participate in classes in their pyjamas, or avoiding stressful rush hour commuting, many students appear to have relished the new flexibility afforded by virtual classrooms.
But the lack of social connectedness with peers remains problematic for many, with in real life interactions stymied by mandatory mask wearing and tightly controlled physical meeting spaces. Although, perhaps counterintuitively, some instructors have found that virtual sessions enabled them to know their students better, despite all the limitations.
Senior university leaders will soon need to make a call on the shape of the next academic year, with only a limited handle on student (and staff) feedback on the popularity and effectiveness of pandemic inspired hybrid learning. And, critically, they will need to assess whether, if given a choice, new applicants will consider the hybrid, lower contact time model to be satisfactory.
Time is now running short for strategic planners to grapple with four important conundrums pertaining to the next academic year.
Should efficient but less popular lecture delivery be retained?
The visibility of weekly contact hours (ranging from a handful for some humanities subjects, to thirty hours in the lab-loving sciences) is often a contentious parental discussion point during campus open days, who question the value for money of the educational offering. The bank of mum and dad remains an influential stakeholder segment, even if they are not the eventual end consumers.
Lecture-based teaching can be a cost-effective way to pack out sparsely populated timetables. So, when lectures are again possible, will offered contact hours revert to the historic pattern or rather might live webinars and recordings be accepted as an equivalent by middle England’s most discerning financial advisers?
Gen Z students have been voting with their feet in recent times (notably since £9k fees came in in England) and often prefer to catch up on assessment-critical lectures via recordings, largely skipping live lecture encounters when given the choice.
Campus bean counters will have already noted that webinars can offer highly flexible, scalable teaching capacity, without associated physical infrastructure costs. But an in-person campus timetable that is too light risks failing to justify the extra cost burden of living away and the higher fees this boarding school model usually commands. Some might say that the traditional university model is facing an existential fork in the road crisis.
Covid-19 driven timetable changes saw a reassuring consistency of response across the increasingly marketised higher education sector. Early signallers (even if the mass media misunderstood them) provided a path for the herd to follow.
Given the high risks of failure in a challenging economy, we should expect to see few universities take outlier positions here. The gravitational pull of tradition and the sector’s conservatism would point to the return of instructors talking in big rooms with many empty seats, especially for research-led education brands. But this may be short sighted.
What is the optimal mix for blended contact time?
Thus far the higher education sector has fended off the fundamental business model challenge of “what am I paying for if it’s only online learning?” by clinging on to live provision, asking instructors to redistribute their time to create both recorded self-study content and run small(er) seminars and virtual webinars. A common misperception is that online delivery is cheaper, and fees should reflect this. Clearly, live lecturer contact time in-person or virtually is an important cost variable.
Whilst the Oxbridge 1:2 instructor-to-student ratio for tutorials model is probably too rich for much of the sector, a shift towards more in-person, small group learning may provoke ire from the lecturer unions, particularly if their research intensive members are pushed towards the three term, 18 weekly contact hours norms, those typically seen in teaching-focused institutions.
However, creative thinkers should also consider nonlinear options here too, for example, all-night hackathons, weekend TED-like talk events, immersive residential study visits, and social learning projects. Activities that operate beyond the walls of regular timetabled classroom sessions and spill out into the wider university experience, utilising the often over busy coffee bars, library and other social spaces found dotted around campuses.
This probably calls for a substantive review of university estates development and space utilisation. More informal, social learning, facilitated by faculty using a blend of online and in-person interventions has the potential to offer a more Gen Z friendly, engaging and transformational experience.
What to do with redundant lecture spaces?
Bolt-on university campus architecture often showcases a low-cost, incrementalist strategy that has not yet adapted to the digital Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) era. Students flock to spaces with comfortable communal seating, perching near power sockets in search of sociable locations that enable them to work, rest, recharge and play in a pattern of their own making.
Newly vacant lecture theatres could be repurposed into 24/7 social learning centres, that can work as comfortable soft-furnished, smaller teaching spaces, but also offer out-of-hours informal social learning. Many traditional universities leave prime teaching space under-utilised or even empty for 20+ weeks in the year, despite a rhetoric of constrained space. Innovative blank page disruptors would look at evenings, weekends and long holiday periods as a missed opportunity. Could the pending cost squeeze result in two-year undergraduate degrees finally breaking through to the mainstream?
How to fund the next generation of immersive tech-based learning tools?
Addressing the elephant in the room. If lectures are truly dead as a parrot, how can the hastily cobbled together online provision be evolved to offer not only a slicker user experience through intuitive wayfaring, strong visual branding, and gamified behavioural nudges, but also with more sophisticated, immersive software applications, providing the sort of experience that digital natives have grown up with on their Play Stations, smartphones and tablets since near birth?
The sector has often historically relied on low cost and open source tech, combined with a collegial sharing philosophy. Serious commercial edtech providers have latterly pricked up their ears, sniffing long awaited investment opportunities. However, universities will have access to only modest funds (without squeezing hallowed research budget lines) available for technology investments and will need to develop innovative strategies to deliver strong bangs for their bucks. Surely there is a potent case for sectoral alliances supported by catalysts (such as Jisc) to be given a generous war chest to recover lost ground here?
The call to bring back large, impersonal lectures, and therefore inevitably the centuries old lecture plus seminar learning format, will be powerful, financially appealing and dangerous. University management planning committees must urgently consider whether to: 1. push on with technology enabled learning reform; 2. lock in the current hastily cobbled together Covid hybrid; or, 3. revert back to the comfortable, old ways.
Over the horizon progressives will want to start addressing four key challenges now, namely how to sell any new offer to students and their parents, decide the optimal teaching timetable diet, repurpose redundant campus space, and further develop new, exciting tech-based learning, affordably. This strategic direction needs to be established and agreed soon.