Some students need the tentpoles of the timetable to thrive

Do defences of the efficacy and accessibility of online learning miss the point? Jim Dickinson finds common cause with a ministerial push for in-person learning

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

When ministers take to the pages of your favourite newspapers to declare that there are “no excuses” for online learning, there tend to be three sorts of reaction in my timeline.

The first is a relatively emotional reaction to the idea that the decisions that have been taken are somehow not in the interests of students and their welfare.

It’s Julian Le Grand’s knights and knaves continuum, remixed for the pandemic – where the sector’s self-perception is one of altruism, competence, creativity and doing the right thing, but where the framing from ministers is academics and their leaders that are at best vulnerable to having their ends diverted to self-interest, and at worst in active pursuit of evil.

It’s also a kind of timeless by-product of marketisation, and I do wish that ministers would stop and think about how that kind of framing feels for the people running and delivering our public services.

The second is to declare that there must be “no going back”, that we have learned lots during Covid and that a bright and brave new blended future must now be banked. I have considerable sympathy with those frustrated by the pace of change in higher education, and some time for those not wanting to waste a crisis, but I also have lots of time for those donning their rose-tinted spectacles and wanting to return to the good old days that they selectively remember, or imagined that they would get to experience.

But it’s the third genre of reaction that I’m concerned with here – the instinctive kneejerk to the idea that “in-person” teaching (which tends to also be called “face-to-face”) is somehow pedagogically superior or preferable.

The view that (for example) online lectures are a second-rate alternative is frequently positioned as “outdated”, insensitive to the access needs of large groups of students, and an inaccurate view of how effective online delivery can be when done well.

Let’s park for a moment the obvious upset that this type of argument will cause to those involved in the delivery of, or those in receipt of, a programme formally designated as “distance learning”. We might regard the framing as crass and ignorant of hundreds of thousands of students, but Nadhim Zahawi clearly doesn’t have the Open University in mind when he makes comments of this ilk.

If you’ve come here for a robust defence of the magic of the sage on the stage, I’m sorry to disappoint. Lots of lectures probably are a disaster from multiple perspectives. But on one level, I do think Zahawi has a point. And that to some extent, defences of the efficacy and accessibility of online learning almost always miss that point.

Yah-mo be there

Back in July 2020, just as most universities were preparing their delivery models for a socially-distanced September, SU officers I talked to began to detect a trend amongst attendees at working groups – that of considering the safety and importance of their component of the student experience, without necessarily considering the sum of the parts.

In the model we developed at the time, each formal aspect of the student experience – the lecture, the seminar, the lab, the exam – made sense to move online. It was also possible to deliver organised social activity online, to deliver student support services like counselling and careers virtually, and even for students to undertake some part-time work without leaving the house.

But it was clear even then that doing so posed a problem. On the one hand, while the individual components could all be evaluated positively for online delivery, there was little consideration of what moving almost the entirety of the formally organised student experience online meant cumulatively – whether it was wise for all of that to be experienced in box rooms, and why, if we were doing that, we would make students who didn’t live near to the university move house to experience it at all.

On the other hand, that approach tended to miss the aspects of the student experience that students self-generate with a little help from the campus infrastructure. Here I’m talking about the bits where you’re bodding about the library, or when you’re bumping into people in the queue for coffee, or where someone pops a leaflet into your hand when you’re passing their trestle table. The serendipity of the campus, in other words – made even more important if what you want out of the student experience extends beyond the formal curriculum and the qualification at the end of it.

That’s not to say, by the way, that those aspects can’t be delivered online. But they are necessarily harder to recreate.

Almost every spirited defence I read of online learning takes an “object” – like the lecture or the seminar or the hour in a lab – and shows me how and what that hour is infinitely preferable when delivered online. “My bit is brilliant online”, say the takes.

Maybe it’s the case that personalisation, modularisation and semesterisation all mean that precious few people in higher education have real visibility over the “whole” of a student’s week or term and how the components stack up. But looking at bits of it is the telescope the wrong way up, not nearly enough of the defences consider the experience holistically, and if we really understood and cared about the “student experience” we wouldn’t keep making the component mistake.

Oh – and I don’t think this is all about striking the right “balance”. If a timetable has eight hours of organised activity in it, I can see how “four hours online, four hours in-person” might sound like a blended balance. But if thirty-six hours used to consist of twenty eight hours alone and online, and eight in-person (getting me out of the house for four out of five days) I can also see how that might make a bad situation much much worse.

With a love that will see you through

But this is not just about extolling the virtues of the alternative pedagogies that are available when teaching isn’t in-person, or considering a student’s overall experience.

Asynchronous delivery – including reading, video material and even students interacting on message boards – is frequently touted as offering a kind of magical flexibility that is deeply important for learning generally, and for both disabled students and international students specifically.

Is this wrong-end-of-the-telescope stuff too? There is an an-principle case to be made for better English language support for international students, and better accessibility built into physical campuses and in-person pedagogies, which would avoid the assumption that the only way we’ll ensure that international and disabled students are able to join in is by, literally, not physically joining in. The pragmatic case is hyflex and recordings, not telling students that the only way to make the campus accessible is by telling people not to come to it.

See also the flexibility case made for busy students with part-time jobs and caring responsibilities. I know that the idea of the “full time” student really is a myth here in 2021, but are we really only going to focus on helping someone fit watching a lecture around childcare or a shift in a shop, rather than supporting students with their actual childcare or their costs (or both)?

I also worry a lot about the takes that suggest that those with busy family lives want to do all their learning from the kitchen table. In my experience, more often than not, those students are desperate for some respite from the stresses of home and view on-campus attendance as escape and a chance to focus rather than some strange, inflexible imposition.

Just call my name

But as well as all the issues raised above, I worry a lot about the idea that “flexible” always equals “good”.

During the pandemic, I’ve seen people with multiple degrees, and in some cases decades of work experience, really struggle without the tentpoles of the commute and the lunch hour and so on – over working, or finding it hard to structure the day, and so on.

I’ve also read numerous articles about the workplace that remind us that working from home robs the young both of the serendipity of learning from more experienced colleagues, and the structures that prevent both significant underworking and significant overworking.

In higher education, the few fixed hours of the timetable literally get students out of the (often damp, cold, expensive to heat, impossibly small) house. Is halving the number of those tentpoles such a great idea?

On Twitter, one correspondent tells me that they went back to university after 30 years in work “mainly for the structure and the social aspect”. They said it was an “active bet against distance learning” but that so far has been “the best 9-5 time I have had for many years”. Are they wrong?

Another says that all too often these conversations are dominated by “the disruptors” and commentators who they argue “ignore the importance of what they tend to describe as “Learning Rhythm”. Are they wrong too?

You might well argue that a pedagogically flawed traditional lecture is a daft way to provide structure to a week for people who’ve had rigid timetables for 15 years. But you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone, and if we’re going to gradually move away from “synchronous” not only do we need to find ways for humans to bump into each other and meet, we also need to find ways to help them structure and plan their time as students.

You’ll never be alone

These aren’t my only worries, and you can find a compendium of wider concerns in this terrific paper from Emily Nordmann, Jacqui Hutchison and Jill MacKay called Lecture rapture: the place and case for lectures in the new normal.

I’m taken in particular with something that course reps up and down the country have told me – that the flexibility of pre-recorded material may not always be a positive:

…may encourage students to spend hours with each video, pausing and obsessing over the minutiae and this is important to consider in cases where live lectures are to be replaced by asynchronous recordings or flipped classrooms”

Not only do the authors remind us that the belief that small-groups are the answer to effective teaching is “simply a denial of [economic] reality”, they argue that reduced face-to-face contact, particularly at pre-honours where classes are largest but the need for structured contact is arguably greatest, may well be a huge mistake.

And quoting from Raaper and Brown’s The Covid-19 Pandemic and the Dissolution of the University Campus: Implications for Student Support Practice, we’re also reminded that not everything that is “new” or “flexible” is such a good idea:

Every crisis is both destructive and productive – we should use the schism of COVID and the massive upskilling it has resulted in to diversify our teaching methods, to reduce the proportion of HE teaching that is delivered via lectures, and to ensure that active and inclusive learning and teaching is not just the pastime of pro-pedagogy faculty.

They remind us that in the grand academic tradition of “this meeting should have been an email”, sometimes a lecture should have been a flipped classroom, sometimes it should have been a discussion group, but sometimes, it should have been a lecture.

And maybe, just maybe, sometimes that lecture should even have been in-person.

One response to “Some students need the tentpoles of the timetable to thrive

  1. This is absolutely spot on. It’s all very well saying how convenient and efficient online teaching is, but it corrupts students into cram watching lectures alone in their bedrooms at 4am in the morning. This is obviously not a good thing.

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