The potential and pitfalls of putting the ‘university experience’ online

Way before the upheaval of the COVID-19 crisis, universities were gradually moving some teaching activities online. Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) such as Moodle or Blackboard are well-established for providing access to course materials, including readings and lecture slides, and the submission and marking of student coursework.

More recently, a head of steam has developed around technologies such as ‘Lecture Capture’, where academics’ lectures are recorded for students to play back in their own time, after – or instead of – the physical lecture. Communications between academics and students routinely take place over email and Skype, and even mental health support is now offered via some online platforms to deal with increased demand. 

The hurried closure of university campuses since March has confirmed the value of these technologies, in terms of being able to carry out the work of Higher Education where physical encounters are impossible. The need to reorganise teaching and assessment procedures so rapidly has of course presented universities with significant challenges, and students’ experience of these changes will have been uncomfortable and uneven. But unlike the days when universities functioned only as physical spaces – with paper essays, pigeon-holes, bulging bookshelves and staff office hours – it has been possible to respond to this emergency by keeping education going online.

However, before we rush to embrace the virtual university as the ‘new normal’, this crisis has also thrown into relief some more problematic aspects of technologised education. In researching our new book Generational Encounters With Higher Education: The academic-student relationship and the University experience, we talked to a range of senior and junior academics from both pre-1992 and post-1992 Universities, and also to current undergraduates and sixth form students about their expectations and experiences of Higher Education. The increased use of, and in many cases reliance upon, technology, emerged as a significant theme in their accounts – and though its benefits were acknowledged, so were its limitations.  

Among academics, one widely-voiced concern was that technology has become relied upon as a cheap way of managing increasing student numbers, in the context of shrinking numbers of staff to students and the financial pressure upon Universities to recruit the maximum possible number of students. Here, there were concerns that the depth traditionally associated with the academic-student relationship is being diluted, in favour of a massified, depersonalised, and disembodied model.  

Related to this, academics discussed the effect of the policy construction of the student as a ‘consumer’ of Higher Education, charged with demanding a certain level of ‘service’. Concerns were raised about students’ increasing expectations of course materials such as slides, handouts and recorded lectures, lengthy feedback on assignments, and even the award of a particular grade – signalling a more passive relationship to the intellectual project of Higher Education than in previous times. Our study notes how the policy focus on student expectations as a driver to Higher Education reforms has resulted in the gradual disappearance of the academic from successive policy documents, and now even from some key elements of teaching practice.   

Academics talked of the difficulties of providing pastoral support to increasing numbers of students presenting with anxiety and depression in the limited amount of time available, particularly in a context where they felt under pressure to develop their own research profiles and career progression opportunities, whilst shouldering significant teaching and administrative responsibilities. They worried that they were unable to give students the support that they both expected and needed, and that the distance between academic and student was often exacerbated by an over-reliance on impersonal educational technologies. 

And what about the students? Many current and prospective undergraduates said that they appreciated the convenience of being able to access course materials online, and to ‘catch up’ on lectures that they had missed. However, they also expressed frustration at what they perceived to be a fragmented experience, where they did not feel that they got to know their lecturers, and sometimes felt that they were being sold short by the provision of generic course material. Students’ accounts expressed a yearning for a meaningful educational relationship with their tutors, which would scaffold their academic development.  

Sixth formers, in particular, spoke of their feelings of having been ‘spoon-fed’ at school and their excitement about the prospect of higher studies, where they could go beyond ‘the mark scheme’ and explore ideas in more depth. Yet some undergraduates continued to feel that their university work was an extension of ‘spoon-feeding’, while some academics spoke of their own frustrations with students’ reluctance to take intellectual risks, as they tried to tick all the boxes to achieve the best grade. Here, we identified the phenomenon of the ‘schoolification’ of the University, where the relationship between academic and student is increasingly coming to be framed as an extension of the relationship between schoolteacher and pupil in compulsory education  

Academics’ and students’ concerns about the nature of the current ‘university experience’ were not focused on technology per se, but on the wider tensions invoked by a massified, marketised, and consumerised Higher Education systemStudents feel under great pressure to ‘succeed’ yet unclear about what success looks like, aside from a high gradeParadoxically, this can be exacerbated by the proliferation of easy-accessible resources designed to support students’ learning. Where students feel that their work should be based on digesting the resources given to them, this discourages independent study; and when they feel that participating in physical lectures or seminars iunnecessary as it is all available online anyway, the experience of study becomes further atomised.  

Academics, meanwhile, often feel thwarted in their attempts to develop a deep and educational relationship with an increasingly individuated student body. Where technology is used appropriately, it has the potential to mitigate some of these bigger problems – and this was acknowledged by academics and students alike. The problem arises when educational technology is used not to support the academic-student relationship, but to substitute for it. The big challenge, right now, is to consider how we might build that relationship despite the constraints on physical interaction and keep it central to the project of the academy, rather than assuming that all students need from us are more recorded lectures.

By Jennie Bristow, Sarah Cant, and Anwesa Chatterjee. First published on the Bristol University Press ‘Transforming Society’ blog, 18 May 2020.

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