In the early medieval universities of Europe, masters stood at the front of a hall, reading excerpts from texts and commenting on them, while students copied down notes word for word. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Today’s universities bear remarkable similarities to their antecedents.
This deeply culturally ingrained model has been shaken up by the coronavirus pandemic, which has prevented students from entering lecture theatres in the UK since late March. Universities have been forced to shift online, and while lots of students are unhappy with the speed and quality of the changes, many experts believe that online learning is key to the future of higher education.
“That it was ever a great idea for one person to stand in lecture hall and transmit to 200-300 people and to expect them to receive and accept that information in one go was clearly ridiculous,” says Ian Dunn, the Coventry University provost who spearheaded the university’s new online-only degrees. “I’ve already said to my university that we shouldn’t go back to lectures.”
Although universities have slowly been moving aspects of their curriculums online for years, Dunn thinks they have fallen behind on where their students want them to be – and that the coronavirus crisis has granted them a valuable opportunity to catch up.
His comments came in answer to the question of whether universities will shift online for good, which was the subject of an online panel hosted by the Guardian and sponsored by Adobe.
Fellow panellist Allison Littlejohn, a professor of learning technology at University College London, cautioned that it’s important to distinguish between distance and online learning. Distance learning, such as through courses delivered by the Open University, is likely to always remain niche, since students value the social and cultural opportunities that campuses offer. “Online can be what we call blended learning – where sometimes you learn using technologies but other times you might actually meet face to face,” she said.
The latter is what universities are promising students who enrol this September. This will likely include a mix of videos and readings that students can do in their own time, complemented by socially distanced small group discussions on campus. “What might be on offer could potentially be better,” said Littlejohn, though she warned against universities trying to simply replicate the classroom online. “It’s what students do with concepts and ideas that’s most important.”
This setup could also potentially benefit disadvantaged students who may struggle to afford to live near campus for three years, as well as mature students thinking of returning to university to learn additional skills that will help them succeed in their careers, noted Mark Andrews, pedagogical evangelist at Adobe.
Leah Belsky, chief enterprise officer at Coursera, a private online learning provider, said that universities have lagged behind other industries in terms of investment in digital infrastructure. She added that the tech industry has underinvested in education due to a perception that it is “slow and heavily regulated”, although there is a growing understanding of its potential for innovation.
Dunn agreed that universities have been reluctant to spend on online learning. “We were very willing to build a new building at £100m but actually seeing a digital campus as an investment at a similar scale is something we ought to have been doing for a very long time and we really haven’t – and that’s a great weakness,” he said.
The panellists agreed that students increasingly expect their learning to be personalised – and that this is easier to deliver online. Andrews said that this provides an opportunity to make sure that disabled students are better accommodated from the outset.
Belsky predicted that some online courses could become more career-focused, since online learning is a “more transactional experience”. She also foresaw increased collaboration between universities, which may choose to pool resources so that “every university doesn’t have to teach its own psychology 101 course”, and can instead focus on what makes them distinctive.
Dunn added that personalisation is especially important given how diverse the student body has become in recent years. While international students come for the cultural and social experience on campus, 40% of Coventry’s domestic students commute, sometimes for hours, and would prefer to access some learning on demand – perhaps even on their mobile phones.
But Dunn warned that online learning must be rolled out carefully so as not to create a tiered education system in which degrees delivered in person are seen as more reputable. “We need to be careful not to create a new form of disadvantage,” he said.
Another challenge that universities are facing, especially in the context of the rapid shift happening as a result of coronavirus, is the pressure on teaching staff. “It’s a very different way of working compared to producing lectures and going in and talking to students. It has required a huge effort from colleagues,” Littlejohn said.
Littlejohn added that students are also feeling new kinds of pressure. She urged students starting online courses to consider their mental health needs, including how much time they want to spend face to face. This is a responsibility for universities too, she said, since despite the benefits of learning online, it’s still essential that they find creative ways to help students “get to know people on a human level”.