I recently attended a departmental meeting where our head of school declared our single most important objective to be the “student experience”. I agree wholeheartedly.
But are universities brave enough to have a completely honest discussion about how their staff can deliver the best experience while this pandemic continues? Moreover, are institutions willing to entertain the idea that digital learning offers – for the moment – a better student experience than the in-person classes for which we have asked students to return to campus?
My doubts do not relate to the ability or willingness of staff to show up and make physical classes work. They are diligently attending despite many having concerns about their own and their families’ health. Nor, in my experience, is student attendance of in-person courses dropping off. However, the fact is that the restrictions imposed by socially distanced teaching are making it very difficult – perhaps impossible – to provide the engaging in-person tutorials and seminars that we did previously.
The visors we have to wear often make it hard for students to hear what we are saying, disrupting the flow of conversation and making discussions feel disjointed. And distancing means that we cannot get close to our students to provide that softer, friendlier approach that often helps when they are finding a concept difficult to understand.
Moreover, from behind masks, the students struggle to get a debate started. They do not get excited, throw ideas around or experience that thrilling sense of connection to others that is fostered by lively classroom discussion.
Personally, after some initial anxiety, I am fairly relaxed about commuting to the office and teaching in-person. But I am glad that I only have to do so one day a week. For the other four days, I deliver tuition, academic support and assessment online from my home office.
Online learning is too broad a term and undersells the specifics of what I do in the virtual classroom. Engagement with students via Teams and Moodle allows for much higher quality discussions and feedback than are currently possible in the classroom. Without the restrictions of distancing, masks and the fear of contracting the virus, we are free to explore, debate and argue topics in greater depth, stretching the students beyond their comfort zone and building the same sense of community that you achieve with in-person tuition in normal times.
And while universities tell us that students were demanding on-campus tuition, feedback on my digital teaching has so far been overwhelmingly positive. After all, today’s students shop online, start romantic relationships online and engage with their friends online. Why should they not be comfortable learning online?
So why are universities not listening to their many excellent staff who have taught digitally for years? Many of us fought early in the lockdown to be allowed to take our in-person modules online because we understood how great an experience it can deliver. Why were these calls rejected? Why are they still being rejected – especially as infection rates begin to rocket again?
I suspect the reason is that there are two sets of decision-makers who are quite different but who both studied when face-to-face teaching was typically the only option. These are senior management and students’ parents – who undoubtedly have an influence on choice of institution.
Both groups have an image of digital learning that involves little more than viewing PowerPoint slides – with a voiceover if you are lucky. But today’s teaching staff can do far better than this – and we want to. Where is the digital leadership at the top of institutions that could harness all this ability and willingness?
There is certainly a place for on-campus contact this semester, but it is more around pastoral support, which students need like never before in these anxious times. Yet I am not allowed onto campus to offer pastoral sessions because the risk of offering a series of individual or small-group sessions is supposedly much higher than teaching a class of 20.
All I want to do is to teach and support students to the best of my ability. I want to give the best student experience I can. But standing on the other side of a classroom behind a mask and a visor is not the way.
The author is a senior lecturer at a UK university business school.