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.