Students want more teaching online. Or do they?

There's a lot of talk around the sector about the percentage or proportion (in principle) of teaching that should be online or remote next year, as “teaching recovery groups” and their ilk kick into gear.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

One thing that strikes me about that is that almost all of the quantitative student survey work we’ve seen is pretty useless. Students disagree, and are not all the same. What a surprise!

There are also categorisation and signal/noise issues in some of the polling. In this new Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO) research on what might drive mature students to apply, the headline is “Universities could attract more mature learners by offering online or blended learning”.

But we should be careful before we interpret that as “move some synchronous learning online”. It could mean everything from lecture capture archives, to online journals, to Zoom seminars – and the signal may well be that respondents want flexible asynchronous learning.

What is clear from the qualitative research I’ve seen on “what students want next year” is that two messages come through – students want human contact, and flexibility.

Now the problem if you take those two lessons and apply them to an object like, say “the lecture”, is that they’re incompatible. On the one hand, students want the flexibility to engage in it when it suits them. On the other hand they want the human contact of coming together – chatting in the queue, going for coffee afterwards, and so on. So what do you do?

Well for a start, you could argue for things like “less lectures” – but we need to be honest about this. “Lectures” are efficient. If you have a 300 person lecture it’s not easy to afford staffing for 10 x 30 people smaller group teaching episodes.

Some of the decision making is driven by assumptions about social distancing. If it becomes up to a university whether it adopts vaccination passports and the trade off is “you can drop social distancing and have more F2F if you go for it”, the pressure will be huge even though there’s major EDI and ethical issues with vaccine passports. It’s why the list of US universities announcing compulsory vaccination grows by the day.

People also have to accept that students – in fact everyone, really – ascribe less value to online video than an in-person encounter. It’s not clear that it’s possible, wise or desirable to try to fight that. It is what it is.

This piece on ITV Westcountry this morning sums up many of the above problems. Plymouth’s School of Nursing has clearly floated delivering lectures online, keeping other activities in-person – but the piece carries student anger at the proposal:

We pay a substantial amount to further our education and it’s quite frustrating. I’m such a social person, it’s really hard to put yourself across when it’s all digital.

Arguably, there is a way to think about the ratio/percentage thing. One option is that we say that there should be that no hour of teaching will ever be delivered that can only be accessed at home or remotely.

That’s because UK student homes are not suitable to have that much time spent in them. Neither family homes nor value-engineered HMOs are suitable, which is why campuses exist and work. But while you can watch something back in a communal space on campus or in bed, interacting with others is different – we’re all tired of stilted Zoom conversations. And we all need the human contact.

So here’s an option, if there’s not the scope, capacity or energy for anything more creative – if you take the old “teaching” hours on a course, and you’re not a distance learner, 100 per cent of it should be delivered on campus and in-person from September.

Of course more of it, and in fact most of it, should also be recorded and retrievable later online. But all of what was in-person should be able to be accessed in-person, and none of it should only be accessible online unless we’re prepared to pay for the spaces that would make that anything other than mentally harmful.

In other words – we shouldn’t read students’ desire for flexibility as a desire to have less in-person activity. They will likely both want and need more.

3 responses to “Students want more teaching online. Or do they?

  1. Some of our students are rather happier not having to get up, walk to campus in the pouring rain and sit uncomfortably and distracted through a lecture having gotten soaked. Similarly those that in traditional lectures who just sit and don’t interact, staring blankly at the lecturer, almost with hate in their eye’s according to some, can stare at a screen without disturbing the lectures flow, whilst those that are engaged can interact often more easily. Blended learning works well for many, for the few it doesn’t we need to consider the possibility they aren’t really suited to University level independent study and perhaps face that unspoken shibboleth that equality of opportunity and equity of outcome really aren’t possible for everyone.

    Many of those that require practical’s may prefer in person lectures too, but even then not everyone’s the same, as for Nursing I remain unconvinced it needs to be ‘taught’ in/at University. As one long term surgeon I know put it “unless you have the people skills and can interact with patients effectively on a human level your qualification means nothing” graduate nurses all too often lack those interpersonal skills “too much time in the class room, not enough time wiping bottoms” being her usual explanation.

    Still we’ll have time to perfect this as the next lockdown is probably just round the corner. Be it because the variants now running rife elsewhere are imported (failure to self isolate after arrival is already being seen in many communities), or the vaccine failure to generate antibodies rate is significantly higher than expected, the ONS study as yet unpublished shows this is a problem and may yet prove fatal with further unlocking and the publics already stretched trust in the governments output, thus their self control of their behaviours leading to potentially exponential spread and case number rise.

  2. At the very least we need to be clear here by what we mean by a ‘lecture’. As teachers/academics we tend to differentiate it from other forms of teaching contact, such as seminars, workshops, tutorials and so on, and define it as a one-way, non-interactive broadcast (which then appears ideal for putting online); for students the term often (as in the Plymouth example above) encompasses many of those other learning and teaching interactions. So when we’re asking students what they value or want, we need to be sure we’re understanding the same thing by the terms we use.

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