Where have all the students gone?

Carli Rowell reflects on teaching during the pandemic, interrogating the continuing absence of students from campus and classrooms

Carli Rowell is a Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex

Back in April 2021, I argued that drawing upon the Covid-19 pandemic in teaching should be thought of as teaching a sensitive topic and approached as such – drawing upon the same pedagogical practices we would when teaching other sensitive topics, like utilising trigger warnings, being attentive to human emotions, language and imagery and so on.

Bell Hooks advocated for teaching and learning that connects real life experiences to the learning that occurs within the classroom and lecture hall as a way to facilitate thought, inquisitiveness and awareness. This was one of the driving forces underpinning my motivation to embed the pandemic into the curriculum – given the module’s focus and all pervasiveness of the pandemic, it became fitting to draw upon the pandemic as a teaching tool and foci of sociological enquiry.

So eighteen months after having first explicitly drawn upon the Covid-19 pandemic as a pedagogical tool to facilitate my sociological teaching, I wanted to reflect on my experience of doing so. How then did this play out in both an online and offline learning environment? What differences and distinctions emerged? And how was this managed?

Mediating “voice” on and offline

Power differences pervade and shape university campuses and classrooms, both in the digital and the real world. Within the classroom, we need to remain attentive to the bodies that are in and out of place within higher education and how this shapes the “confidence” to speak and contribute to seminar discussions – ensuring that as educators we provide opportunities to engaged for those feeling somewhat hesitant to.

Online, we need to be attentive to the ways that we draw neurodiverse students into wider group discussions – how internet connectivity can barrier participation, or how the space and aesthetics of someone’s living situation can serve as a disincentive to participate in live zoom seminars with cameras turned on.

Through my online teaching, I stressed that students did not need to put their camera on when partaking in the online zoom seminar, that they were free to contribute orally, by adding their thoughts into the chat function, or through teaching technologies such as Padlet (a virtual wall where users can post content and comments), through zoom’s whiteboarding function and Google Docs, or if they lived through my office hour or even though emailing me.

In my offline, real world face-to-face teaching that accompanied the 2021-2022 academic year, mediating voice included both providing space for students to both be vocal and remain silent. While students were encouraged to share their voice through small group discussions, whole group discussions and using in class teaching technologies (i.e., Padlet), just as importantly, I also provided space for students to remain silent if they so wish – given that the sensitivity of covid exists on a spectrum.

Sometimes, silence speaks louder than words, and in these moments of silences, students can be collecting their thoughts or thinking through their ideas.

Where did the students go?

During the 2020-2021 academic year, lectures were pre-recorded and uploaded to the university’s online learning platform to enable students to watch at any point. Seminars were delivered via a live Zoom session. For the academic year 2021-2022 however, with the easing of restrictions a more traditional approach to teaching and learning was delivered.

The course consisted of one 50-minute lecture and one 50-minute seminar weekly, both delivered in person, on campus for the 2021-2022 academic year. Whilst lectures were delivered live, on campus, they were also recorded using Panopto and uploaded onto the university online learning platform seminars were delivered on campus, in person, across two different seminar groups. So then, what differences and distinctions emerged across the two modes of delivery?

My own anecdotal evidence highlights those students remain to be engaging with teaching and learning online where there is scope to do so. For the academic year 2021-2022 for the module that is the focus of the article (Sociology of Globalisation) out of a class of 45 students, approximately 8 turned up for in person lectures (9am Wednesdays) week on week.

The in-person seminar participation was at best half, but more frequently a third of the class and even less in the final weeks of the course. Two months teaching into semester two (with just three more weeks left to go) this patten is the same across the remaining modules that I teach on. Face to face attendance is scarce, with many students opting to remain out of the class (granted the strikes have complicated the ‘mood’ on the ground). Nonetheless, where have all the student’s gone?

The motivating factor behind this is not known. Was this a result of wanting to socially distance where possible amid the rapid rise of Omicron in the UK? Or was it more appealing to watch to lecture online later that day (or even week) from home, or even through a mobile when travelling (as I have witnessed students do in my own online workshops) rather than travelling to campus for a 9am start? Was I seeing a “Netflix of education” emerge across my course, where students wanted to consume their education on demand when it best suited them?

In terms of assignments, my own experience shows a greater number of students with assignment extensions and non-submissions as compared to when I taught the module pre pandemic (during 2017-2018). This is indicative of the unforeseen and still, everchanging impact of the pandemic upon daily lives and thus the need for us, as educators to take the pandemic into account, not just in terms of our teaching but upon the way in which it continues to serve as an obstacle for learners. What exactly is occurring in the black box of post-pandemic higher-education?

Implications of the pandemic hangover

What does all that mean for the future of UK HE provision? Is it our job as educators of higher education to foster a less instrumental approach to learning? Or should we strive (in recognising the pressures and pulls on the contemporary student, their multiple juggling of demands) to offer a pick and mix style of education in response? I argue for the former.

Whilst the pandemic ushered in new online possibilities (many positive), there are nonetheless expectations set by the pandemic that we now need to begin to break free from. In person attendance seems to be at an all-time low, a phenomenon not just present across mine or my colleagues’ teaching experiences, but across UK HE institutions as a whole and further exacerbated by the ongoing national strikes within UK HE.

Across my own experience of teaching throughout the 21-22 academic year, face to face attendance is at an all-time low, (and engagement with the core readings even lower). This leaves me to wonder are we witnessing the hangover of the pandemic? Whilst the phenomenon of “ghost teachers” in education isn’t a novel phenomenon perhaps the rise of “ghost students” may well be.

The landscape of UK higher education is one marked by increasing commodification and for students this manifests itself through high tuition fees, accommodation and living costs which place financial pressures on students never before seen. Add in the pandemic and set this all against the backdrop of industrial action it is a messy and murky time for UK higher education.

What is normal?

The absence of students from campus and classrooms may well be that, given the pandemic, students just don’t know what a “normal” university learning experience is. In which case, it is universities’ job to relay this to students, to communicate expectations and norms as to what is required on part of the student and to support academic staff when setting such expectations whilst also being mindful and attentive to circumstances that preclude students from face-to-face attendance.

Attendance in on campus lectures, seminars and workshops is an important part of the learning experience. University educators are specialists in their respective fields, they have expertise to share with students and this can only go so far through a recorded lecture. Students are increasingly viewing lectures as something to be consumed passively, in line with their interests or more instrumentally, their assignment topics.

Lectures are deeply interactive sessions, between the voice of the lecturer and the mind of the student, and again within and between students. The conversations sparked by material presented in lectures (and seminars, tutorials, and workshops) that spill over into the university corridors as students make their way from one session to the next are part of the magic of university learning that students are being robbed of.

There is much to be gained when students learn in collaboration and conversation with the tutor and their fellow peers, something that cannot occur when one is working through the seminar questions at home alone or watching the lecture on catchup. Chatting, laughing, and sighing are all part of the collective experience of being a student and learning alongside attending lectures in person as part of a larger cohort that is not only in conversation with the tutor but with one another. Much is lost when this does not occur.

It is not just educators of higher education that are perplexed by the absence of students. Through my role as undergraduate convenor, I am aware that sections of the student body deeply value and enjoy in person classes and yearn for their return in the pre-pandemic form, often wanting more from on campus education and indeed their fellow students by way of contributions and interactions.

Not ignoring the challenges

I do not wish to downplay the challenges facing contemporary university students, as I am mindful of the various commitments and challenges that “non-traditional” students face throughout their university learning journeys. Students, per se, may be working to meet the financial cost of university, or striving to save money for post-graduation living.

Rising living costs may mean that students are living further away from their university and given the time it takes to commute compounded by its expense may opt to ‘catch up’ on lecture and seminar material at home rather than choose to spend time and money commenting to campus – especially so, given the cost-of-living crisis. Socialisation fatigue as a result of lockdown can turn the then everyday acts of the commute and social interaction exhausting and off-putting.

A university education equips us with the “unknowns unknowns”, knowledge that we didn’t know, that we didn’t know, or more importantly, didn’t know we even needed to know. A Netflix, on demand, pic and mix style of higher education that seems to be fuelling students’ selective engagement and classroom absence – such a module of education is based upon the premise that students know best in relation to what they need to know within the context of their degree.

Such an approach squeezes out any room for learning for learning’s sake, for pleasure, enjoyment, to broaden one’s mind and for the collective learning experience. Given universities push to demonstrate the value of their degree offerings by way of “employability”, education as a dream space for the possibility for learning for learning’s sake is increasingly under threat, and it is our job as university educators to empower students to reassert the value of doing so.

7 responses to “Where have all the students gone?

  1. Let’s get back to fully face-to-face teaching pretty damn quick before the ‘Netflixing’ of UK Universities ‘education’ degrades the whole student experience permanently.

  2. Some interesting insights here, thank you. Could it also be that the pandemic has set a new social norm where it is now viewed as acceptable to be dipping into learning materials on demand rather than having to attend in person?

  3. “acceptable to be dipping into learning materials on demand rather than having to attend in person?”

    That existed before – students didn’t turn up and thought they would catch up or listen to the recording a classmate would make below the table.

    1. There’s an option missing here, blended learning. This has live classes (seminars) students turn up to campus for and live online teaching (lectures) that are timetabled and interactive. This seems to promote the highest level of engagement with my students. I record the online classes as well but this has never harmed attendance. Students tend to watch them back when reflecting on their notes or if they were ill or had caring responsibilities.

    2. Fair comment. Although I do feel the pandemic has exacerbated this trend i.e. more students than before are doing it, especially since more materials were being made available digitally e.g. as academic staff, in our institution, we were required to make everything available digitally including pre-recorded lectures and recordings of all synchronous (online) sessions (lectures, seminars, workshops etc…), where as pre-pandemic, we were only required to provide recordings of live lectures (not workshops/seminars)

  4. My teaching this year informs me it can be student and/or course dependent. One module I’m getting 280/330 attendance on Friday at 4pm, in another I’m getting 10/68. I lead the larger module and its essential to get them interested from the beginning. Need to draw students in from the beginning. Flexibility in learning is important but keep an eye on the 15% that do not engage.

  5. I have experienced a mixed bag. But I think reflects wider societies reluctance to attend in-person work everyday too. I have one class with near full attendance in-person, another reached near two thirds, another was low. Timetabling, length of travel, cost of travelling, working, family, pets are all having an impact. I can also see students are bingeing or box-setting online materials before assessments. Interesting trends.

Leave a Reply