“All my child’s lectures are online in September, why should they even be paying fees? It’s not fair that they will be stuck in their rooms for another year”.
In a month when restrictions significantly ease, while a new and potentially more transmissible variant increases at an alarming rate in several areas of the country, you could be forgiven for thinking that the careful, “following the science” recovery plan of the current government isn’t as clear cut as it is cracked up to be.
This leaves universities once again stuck between a rock and a hard place. Throughout the pandemic, the sector has been somewhat of an afterthought in the Covid-19 response, with guidance appearing too little and too late to be of significant help. As thoughts turn to the new academic year and looming acceptance deadlines, universities must fulfil their Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) requirements by providing applicants with detailed information about their offer for September. Hence the dash of information released to declare intent as part of the “pre-contract” period before students begin accepting offers.
But what should that entail? Will June 21st bring an end to all restrictions and social distancing, or is this rhetoric aimed at opening the hospitality industry fully with some restrictions remaining elsewhere? This would surely seem prudent as we are most definitely not out of the pandemic, though hats off to the NHS for their gargantuan efforts to treat patients and their successful vaccination rollout.
Take a punt
Universities are left making “educated guesses” about the position we will be in later in the year, as we move back towards winter and virus-supporting conditions. Does any university want to be the first to declare they will be happy to put hundreds of students in close quarters, in a windowless environment for a significant period of time? With more data available about the airborne nature of the virus, and the importance of appropriate ventilation (a lot more difficult in a lecture theatre, than for example student halls), it is perhaps not surprising that most universities are reticent.
However, the bigger issue here is unpacking what we actually mean by “lectures”. Over the past year, the rhetoric promoted by the Government and in the media is that “contact hours” equals “quality education”, and that “lectures” equals contact teaching. The minister for universities herself wrote in her letter to students on the 31st December that “quantity of taught hours must be maintained”. Because as we all know, as long as students are in lecture theatre, they’re learning!
Though all universities use the term slightly differently, for our purposes here, I am defining a “lecture” as a more didactic form of instruction in a large group setting. And no, that doesn’t mean I think lectures can’t be interactive (personally I’m a big fan of kahoot!), but they are different from other more interactive forms of delivery.
For the majority of students, the delivery of their programme will include “lectures”, but also small group sessions, laboratories or practical sessions, tutorials, seminars etc. These have been perhaps seen by some recently as an “afterthought” to the traditional lecture, but this absolutely isn’t the case. This mix of learning delivery is vital for students’ learning, and is supported by extensive education research.
Learning from the pandemic
Over the past year, we have, as a sector, learnt many lessons. We converted to remote learning overnight with little preparation or forewarning. Staff across the country have worked extraordinarily hard to ensure the best learning experience they can, and students have continuously adapted to variations in delivery as government restrictions have changed.
No one would claim that the past year has been ideal, or that the experience was perfect, but it has been extremely insightful. We have had to work to engage students more effectively online, have experienced challenges with technology and access, and have identified types of learning and teaching that are most effective in-person and much harder remotely. But we have also developed new strategies and innovative approaches and found sessions that work as well, or in some cases better, online.
Working with students, we have found that many aspects of online learning provide students with more flexibility. This has been particularly helpful for students with caring responsibilities, or who are in paid employment alongside their studies. By moving some content online, we have been able to engage with cohorts at a distance, on placement, or those who would normally commute. Students’ access to many aspects of learning has been enhanced.
But it certainly hasn’t been all plain sailing. Social distancing has made learning in large groups extremely difficult. The fixed nature of lecture theatres mean that they have been impacted more than other spaces with extremely low socially distanced capacities. Students have missed informal conversations with academics and their peers. Many have struggled to find appropriate spaces to work in, and devices and working broadband to access this learning, and may have struggled with the isolation of learning from home.
Though there are many uncertainties ahead, both staff and students are keen to be back on campus – and universities want to maximise that time, especially if there are potential restrictions on distancing in place. Is it better to repeat teach a lecture 5 times, or move that session online and bring students in for more interactive small group sessions focussed on application and consolidation of learning? I know what I’d choose if I were a student.
Which brings us back to the contact hours debate. What do we actually mean when we say “contact”? And how do we use this time most effectively to provide opportunities for students to connect with their peers and academics? Feedback from the UPP Student Futures Commissions shows that the majority of students would like some element of their learning to remain online, but also that they want time with tutors and group work to be prioritised. We need to prioritise “contact” time, but this doesn’t necessarily require large scale lectures, which traditionally promote less engagement from students anxious to speak in front of the group. The aim of blended learning isn’t to reduce the amount of time students have, but to optimise the way this time is spent and provide additional resources and mechanisms to scaffold their learning.
Accentuating the positives
We have to capitalise on the positives from the past year. It has been hard. If my increased wrinkles and number of grey hairs is any indication of the state of academic teams across the country, we’re all exhausted. Students have had a raw deal, and are unsurprisingly looking for something “better”. But that doesn’t mean that we should just “return to how it was before”.
Our job now is to take what has worked and continue to make it better (at perhaps a more measured pace than during the pandemic!). As we have seen from the announcements over the past few weeks, that means that some measure of blended learning is here to stay. What it doesn’t mean is that students will be stuck in their rooms on endless zoom calls (Covid-19 allowing).
Yes, some lectures may be online. But other formats of learning won’t be. We have a responsibility to change the rhetoric. To inform and educate the media about the role and nature of learning in higher education, and to support and direct government policy. To support our students to develop as independent learners, and help them to get the most from all types of delivery.
To help them to see their learning as a journey, rather than a timetable of contact hours in a classroom, though I for one am definitely more than a little excited at the thought of getting back into one soon.