The suggestion online learning means lower quality teaching from lecturers like me just isn’t true

Coronavirus has gone to university. Like thousands of undergraduates, it has moved into the halls of residence and is now hanging around lecture theatres and uni bars, worrying parents.

This was inevitable but it was not unavoidable. I have been a university lecturer for over 10 years and the one constant in all that time has been the dreaded ‘Freshers’ Flu’ that is unleashed every September when students from all over the country are thrown together and encouraged to enjoy themselves.

By October, students and staff are dropping like flies as every strain of the sniffles swirls about campus in a bacterial ballet of infection. Throw Covid-19 into the mix and you don’t need to have a degree in virology to see the risks involved. But the Government said “Press on.” “It’ll be fine.” “Over the top, lads!” “Don’t forget your masks.”

So over we all went, and the inevitable happened. There are now at least 5,000 confirmed cases among students and staff in universities across the country. Universities have largely been left to try and contain the infection, look after their students, and deliver teaching by themselves. After waving the students off, Boris Johnson and his squad of dead-eyed lackeys jumped in the last lifeboats and rowed away from the disaster unfolding on UK campuses. 

This week, three universities have announced they are temporarily halting face-to-face teaching and moving lectures online, prompting yet more cries for a refund of tuition fees. And I can understand why. Believe me when I say that lecturers and university staff are genuinely gutted for their students. None of this is fair. Students should be swigging cheap drinks at 90s themed foam parties and trying to read the whole of Middlemarch in the taxi on the way home for a 9am lecture. Instead, many are in lockdown and their degree is being live-streamed over Microsoft Teams. I wish it wasn’t like this. We all do.  

Messages are seen pasted inside the windows of student accommodation at Manchester Metropolitan University on September 28, 2020, as many students live in a temporary lock-down (Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP)

Like most lecturers, I have been delivering a blend of online and face-to-face learning, although that may change again, possibly by the time this article is published – maybe even by the time you have finished reading it. So I know a thing or two about online learning and what is going on behind the scenes in every module, on every course, at every university in the country. There is much to be frustrated with, but the suggestion online learning means lower quality in terms of teaching and content, with one petition arguing that “the quality of online lectures is not equal to face-to-face lectures”, just isn’t true.

Delivering online learning is tough. Very tough. It is far more labour-intensive than delivering face-to-face teaching. Before the apocalypse, I delivered all my lectures in person. I held seminars, tutorials, and very occasionally delivered an old school style lecture as the ‘sage on stage’ where I talked, and they listened (ish). But educators have long known that just talking at students for several hours isn’t a very effective teaching technique and it’s the smaller tutorials where the real learning takes place.

Why? Because here the students can talk, ask questions, debate, and actively engage with their subject. As the lecturer, your job is to know your stuff and facilitate discussion, but it is student-led. I would take in some material to discuss, maybe there would be a PowerPoint, possibly some group work, but I would mostly allow the students to explore and debate. You can’t do that via Teams or Zoom. I know you can in theory, but I’m telling you, you can’t.

If none of the students want to put their camera on (they aren’t told that they have to), all I can see is a wall of initials. I can’t see how students are reacting, I don’t know if they are bored or interested. I am talking at my computer, and, like a cheap medium, I spend my time asking, “Is there anybody there? Can you hear me? Do you have anything to say?”

And it’s no easier for the students. They have no idea who is there either and don’t want to just shout out, so are reduced to raising an artificial hand or posting in the chat section, which is easily missed. Don’t get me wrong, without this software we would be royally stuffed, but it’s fair to say that the Socratic method of class participation is ill-suited to online learning. 

The only way through all this is to firmly structure the lecture. To come armed with enough material to fill that void on your own if needs be. This works but producing that content and making it worthy of the tuition fees is extremely hard work. Because the delivery must be different, every single module has had to be rewritten, restructured, and repackaged. Over three months, every course has been entirely remodelled. It has been an enormous effort.

Then there is the technology. Oh, the technology. Lecturers have had to rapidly acquire the skill set of a seasoned YouTuber to deliver online learning well. Colleagues who formerly thought TikTok was a breath mint and called tech support to rewind a DVD are now live-streaming across multiple platforms, integrating and embedding content in virtual learning environments, and vlogging about assessment. To be sure, these are welcome skills and will ultimately make us better teachers, but they have had to be quickly learned in the last few months, and on top of the usual workload.

I do not know any lecturer whose workload hasn’t at least doubled when delivering online teaching. I am loath to say this because there is already an unhealthy culture in academia of working all the time, but many colleagues cancelled leave over the summer to get online learning ready for the new term. I know most lecturers are working late into the evening and through the weekends to try and keep up with what the rapidly changing rules mean for their students. This is done because university staff genuinely care about their students and want them to have the best learning experience. This is a crisis and, in a crisis, people go above and beyond, but it’s not sustainable.

Online learning is not what any of us want to be doing. We would rather be back in the classroom, but universities also must keep students and staff safe. There are a lot of things to be angry about right now, but online teaching delivering lower quality content than face-to-face teaching really isn’t one of them.

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