It’s time to get students back into lecture halls

When British universities compete for prospective students, they boast of state-of-the-art facilities, a vibrant social scene and accommodation designed to promote fun and friendship. Depending on where they are in the myriad ‘league tables’ designed to guide students through their decision-making, universities may also boast of excellent teaching, high levels of student satisfaction and holding a reputation for quality research. What they never say is this:

‘You will spend a year stuck in a small flat with five random other people, accessing lectures and seminars via patchy wifi from your own struggling laptop, prevented from escaping to the library or the pub, and summarily instructed not to return home, or not to return to campus, at a few days’ notice. You won’t be celebrated by a graduation ceremony, and you will be routinely shamed by the media for having parties, despite the fact that many of you will be working in supermarkets, social care or other essential jobs. At some point, when the academic year has ended, you may be grudgingly invited to return to an empty campus, provided you have mastered the skill of testing yourself for coronavirus every five minutes.’

Yet the prospectus-entry-that-never-was has been the ‘university experience’ for around two million students, for over a year. And with several universities now announcing that lectures, and even some seminars, may remain online for the autumn term, it’s not surprising that some students and parents are kicking up a fuss. Why, they ask, should they cough up the standard tuition fee (£9,250 per year for undergraduate courses), and pay thousands more for accommodation, when they are being provided with a substandard university experience?

As a university lecturer, I have a lot of sympathy for students right now. It has been a horrible time, and a far cry from the promise of higher education that was dangled in front of them since secondary school. But some caveats are needed. The de facto closure of campuses for much of the past year has been the result of lockdown and social-distancing measures, meaning that with the best will in the world, there was simply no space for large lectures – and for those universities that provided in-person seminar teaching, the big rooms had to be used for much smaller groups.

Timetabling cannot just happen the week before term starts; it needs to be done months in advance. Yet far from looking forward to a restriction-free September, guidance from the Department for Education (DfE), released on 10 May 2021, repeats the same rules that have choked campuses for the past year: two-metre distancing (or a bit less, with masks); ‘segmentation of student or staff populations (for example, by course, year group, accommodation, site and so on, and in teaching and accommodation situations)’; and the demand for a number of bespoke ‘outbreak plans’, in the event that ‘you may have to adapt elements of your provision at very short notice’.

Meanwhile, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), has given implicit approval to the continuation of online teaching. ‘No matter what teaching methods universities and colleges use, they must provide consistently good courses for all students’, she says. And they must decide on that strategy now, by providing ‘timely and clear information for students on how their courses will be taught next year’.

In this context, universities simply cannot promise a ‘return to normal’ until the government does (an irony that seems to have escaped the DfE, in its statement that ‘HE providers are autonomous institutions’). And those moaning about tuition fees – not least, parents – should also note that ‘blended learning’ does not mean less work for academics. Before lockdown, I was pre-recording lectures, teaching workshops in class for those students who could come, and teaching the workshop again online for those who could not. This meant that a session that would normally take two hours to deliver took at least six, and that was without the technical headaches and added levels of tutorial support required by students who were, understandably, struggling with the disorientation and isolation of this weird way of learning. There is nothing I would love more than a return to in-person teaching in the autumn.

But is that necessarily what universities want? What has provoked the petition launched by a University of Leeds student, and signed by thousands so far, is a suspicion that the emergency measures adopted in the face of the pandemic will continue, for other reasons. Plans for a ‘blended teaching approach’ are unacceptable ‘considering the freedoms that will be allowed in other parts of society come the start of the next academic year’, states the petition:

‘Online teaching is in no way a substitute for in-person learning and it is ridiculous that the university would expect us to agree with or even accept their decision on teaching for the next academic year. We welcome discussion with the university over this issue, but our aim is clear: normality must return in all areas of society, and most importantly we demand a complete return to in-person teaching for all students at the University of Leeds.’

Students are right to be wary. The move towards ‘blended learning’ was taking place way before the pandemic, and given any number of justifications. Some leading universities, encouraged to over-recruit by the perverse incentive of tuition fees, simply did not have enough space to teach all their students. Putting a lecture online is much cheaper than building a massive lecture hall, or employing more academics. Online lectures were said to provide a (similarly cheap) ‘solution’ to the access difficulties faced by disabled students, and a resource that other students said they wanted, to avoid the hassle of getting out of bed and down to campus. Technologies such as ‘lecture capture’ were being used widely, despite concerns about their implications for academic freedom, intellectual property and, ultimately, academics’ jobs. After all, why bother employing an actual person to write and deliver a new lecture every year, when videos could be recycled instead?

To some extent, the grim experience of the Covid campus has provided a useful corrective to many of the assumptions driving the technologisation of higher education: not least the idea that this is something students actively want. As in schools, the provision of online education during the pandemic has been patchy – some universities, and some academics, have made a significant effort to engage students in Zoom-type seminars and provide them with engaging resources, while others have not. Learning technologies have their place, and we have no doubt gotten better at using them. But as every new teacher quickly learns, what students get out of a taught session does not directly reflect the amount of work that you have put into preparing it.

Writing ‘in defence of the lecture’ back in 2017, journalist Miya Tokumitsu criticised the trend within academia towards decrying lectures as ‘passive’ or non-inclusive, and rushing to adopt ‘new so-called content-delivery techniques’, such as project-based learning, flipped classrooms, and online instruction. Lectures, she argued, ‘are not designed to transmit knowledge directly from the lecturers’ lips to students’ brains’ – rather, ‘while speaking to students and gauging their reactions, lecturers come to new conclusions, incorporate them into the lecture, and refine their argument’. In other words, in-person lectures are part of the process of developing knowledge, not just ‘delivering content’. This is a process that requires active engagement through listening and thinking.

Tokumitsu also discusses the role of lectures in establishing academic communities. ‘The weekly lecture, or pair of lectures, draws students together at the same time and place, providing a set of ideas to digest while reading supplementary material and breaking into smaller discussion sections’, she writes. ‘Classrooms are communities, and typically lectures are the only occasion for the entire group to convene physically. Remove the impetus to gather – either by insinuating that recorded lectures are just as effective or by making the lecture optional – and the benefits of community disappear.’

The shift to ‘blended learning’ brought about by the pandemic has confirmed what is lost when the physical lecture goes. There is a huge difference between being in a lecture that is being delivered to you in real time, and watching a lecture that has been delivered to other people in the past; similarly, delivering a pre-recorded lecture to your computer is nothing like talking to a group of students, constantly scanning their faces for signs of confusion that might prompt you to explain the point more clearly, or ask a question to provoke discussion. Even ‘live’ teaching online is disorientating. When students have their cameras off and are engaging in discussions primarily through the text chat, you can have a great time with those who get it, but you are (literally) in the dark about who is lost and confused.

pre-existing drift towards the ‘schoolified’ university, where students are encouraged to expect that good teaching feeds them knowledge that they can reproduce in their essays, has been intensified by the provision of lectures (often with transcripts) that can be listened to again and again, in place of the educational conversation that Tokumitsu describes. Students might be learning ‘independently’, in the sense of being alone in their bedrooms, but this practice breeds a dependence on the academic that runs counter to the intellectual development higher education should cultivate. The problem is compounded by the fact that the few hours of teaching time per week have, for the past year, comprised the sum total of the ‘university experience’. Denied the opportunities for extracurricular activities — hanging out, going to the library, or all the other things that students spend their time doing — they have felt the alienation of taught sessions keenly.

So when students demand that the ‘return to normality’ is signified by a return to in-person teaching, they are not just fetishising a ‘teaching method’, as the OfS implies. They are asking for the return of education as a relationship between academics and students, rather than a service that is provided and consumed. This is something universities and academics should be fighting for, too.

This article was first published on spiked.

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