Should lectures be online in September?

Adele Hill digs into the "lectures online or not" debate and finds more to the issue than the coverage suggests.

Adele Hill is Associate Dean  Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Health at the University of Plymouth

“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.

10 responses to “Should lectures be online in September?

  1. You’re right that a lecture shouldn’t be a 60 minute monologue, and that they can be as interactive as you like. You’re right too that the whole ‘flipped classroom’ issue is orthogonal to whether large-group classes happen in person or online. Polling of students at the university where I work has shown a large majority for wanting everything back in person, a significant minority for blended learning and no one wanting everything to continue online. As for not wanting to be the first university to announce large face to face classes again, by the start of next term everyone in serious danger will have been vaccinated, other than those who choose not to, and the hospitalisation and death rate among people of student age with no existing illness has always been virtually zero. If September isn’t right for going back in class, no time ever will be.

    We’ve all worked hard to make sure that online classes work, and some good things will come out of going online, i.e. pushing us into things we ought to have been doing anyway. But in the end the rationale of online teaching is distance learning, not a way of keeping apart students already on campus & paying £9250 to be there.

    1. I agree. I am certainly not advocating for switching out in-person contact for online just for the sake of it, especially when students are on campus. This isn’t an argument for reducing contact hours (though I am also not a fan of the ‘contact hours = learning’ argument), this is definitely about ‘adding value’. But there are also positives for some cohorts of mixing formats. For those students commuting or on placement etc, we have been able to spread teaching out throughout times we would normally struggle to engage with them as they are at a distance. ‘Flipped classroom’ learning has been much more effective in the past year as we have had access to better technologies and resources. And many students have valued the flexibility. I met with several cohorts this week to devise a plan of how we manage sessions over the next month or 2 as things open up a bit assuming that they would want the majority face to face, and was surprised by how much they would prefer to keep online. But there are definitely 2 separate issues here. One of how we manage teaching and learning in a way that best supports students, and the other of social contact, reducing isolation, providing access to lecturers, and group learning that students really need and have very much lost out on over the past 18 months. This definitely needs to be prioritised, and we should be looking for all opportunities to increase and enhance this!

  2. Spot on. We have to change the media (and thus parental / applicant) narrative that University learning = predominantly lectures. For most disciplines, this simply isn’t true any more, even if it might have been when parents / newspaper columnists studied. Students learn far more in (active) small group settings than they do in a (passive) lecture, and these are far more important to building a sense of community. And the fact is, pre-pandemic, many students were often using recorded materials (lecture capture) instead of attending lectures anyway – lecture attendance was woeful across the sector.

    1. Absolutely. There are so many formats we use. Lectures are one element of learning, and can be both bad and good in equal measure. But being an adult, independent learner involves so much more than this. Education has changed, but the rhetoric is behind.

  3. As the blog notes, it’s not the lecture-room experience that student’s want, it’s the wider campus experience. A recent publication from studentsurvey.ie reports:
    ‘At the aggregate level, within responses to the question “what are the positive elements of the online/ blended learning experience you want to keep when on-campus studies resume?”, one answer appeared to dominate and that was students wanting to have recorded lectures available to them.’ https://studentsurvey.ie/sites/default/files/users/user27/StudentSurvey.ie%20Interim%20Results%20Bulletin%202021.pdf

    1. I completely agree support for recorded lectures is high. According to the UPP Student Futures research, almost 2 thirds of students want this to be available longer term. And for good reason, it allows them time to go over their learning at their own pace and check details when needed. But that doesn’t automatically mean that the same support is there for ‘replacing with online’.

      In the same survey, almost a third of students wanted live synchronous sessions to stay in some form. There are also variations when you consider the granular detail of the cohorts. Where postgrad students or those on placements may prefer these, new, younger students may find them harder to engage with and miss the social interaction around the edges. There are many positives, including those you have highlighted, and we should absolutely ensure these continue.

      But the broader point is about also looking at the mix of learning formats we use, including how students become independent learners rather than ‘recipients of information’, Lectures are one specific format of many we use, and our choices are enhanced now because of the work done by so many over the past year.

      Our students are even more diverse than the learning we engage in. There will be different mixes that work for different subjects and different cohorts. Working out how we do that, whilst ensuring that students have ample opportunities for social contact, group learning, and academic networking is our next challenge.

  4. Bryan – need to be careful with that finding. It’s true that every bit of research I’ve laid my hands on says students want to keep recordings they can access. But barely any support for live/synchronous online. And if you switch 12 hours of F2F to 8 F2F + 4 recordings, they tend to complain about missing the social contact – however dry it was in lecture form.

  5. Hi Wonke – note to your graphics editor, the lecture as pictured in the image at the top of the piece has a white male lecturer speaking to a group of largely male, exclusively(?) white students. I don’t know if this was a deliberate choice to demonstrate that lectures as thought of in the public imagination are quite ‘old-school’ as is the idea of a male and white dominated student body? If so, nice subtext. If not, then maybe a more up to date representation of today’s diverse lecture participants would be good?

    Adele – nice piece, we do need to change the public perception of what ‘lectures’ cover in terms of participating in learning. I suspect that the students are less worked up about this than the headline writers.

  6. Remind me what lectures are for again? Lectures as in Adele’s helpful phrase “a more didactic form of instruction in a large group setting”? We can make better decisions about them when we know what they are for.

  7. Really interesting piece, and I agree with a lot of what’s said here. We do though need to be a bit franker about the consequences of ‘flipping’. If we have fewer F2F lectures alongside more online resources, with contact time focusing more on smaller group sessions this has significant resourcing implications. Either we’ll need to increase staffing levels in order to maintain the number of contact hours each student experiences, or we’ll ‘flip’ maintaining existing staffing levels and each student will receive fewer contact hours. That takes us into the quality vs. quantity issues around contact hours which in many ways is a good discussion to have, but not necessarily an easy one.

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