The pandemic is a chance to rethink education, not settle for online lectures

UK, 18 December 2020 (The Guardian) – Back in March, universities worldwide moved almost completely online in response to the pandemic, with only small classes still being taught face-to-face. This teaching experiment has lasted eight months but now, as we move into 2021, the next step is to think critically. Is blended learning, which combines online and in-person teaching, the future of universities post-pandemic?

The main change that most universities have introduced is pre-recorded lectures. But this approach has been challenging for many lecturers and disappointing for some students. It doesn’t build sufficiently on the established and proven practices of university education, developed over many centuries.

First, any non-interactive learning magnifies an existing problem: students often don’t listen or engage when they are seated in big lecture rooms. Throughout our careers spanning decades at universities across the world, we have consistently heard from students that this is a disappointing experience for them.

Online, many don’t even tune into the lectures at all. A pre-Covid study by researchers from East Carolina University found dropout rates to be six to seven times higher in online programmes compared to equivalent face-to-face programmes. This is because it displaces most of the genuine conversation and interaction which take place in universities. That absence makes the experience of online lectures closer to reading a book, which just doesn’t work if you’re learning about an unfamiliar topic.

The other crucial element is peer interaction, which provides immense positive effects in terms of motivation and long-term bonds. It occurs naturally when students share lecture rooms, queue in front of a classroom or have a post-lecture coffee together, but not when lectures are taking place online. A study by the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education before the pandemic showed that 35% of students said they never participated in online discussion groups, compared to only 19% with face-to-face learning. Even the old, and still prevalent, academic term “symposium” actually originally meant drinking together in ancient Greece – perhaps for good reason.

The problems are compounded by the fact that lecturers have been forced to become part-time producers and technicians, which they are not trained to do. If we continue to expect them to work outside their comfort zone, academic productivity, teaching quality and research productivity will suffer.

Yet many universities are planning to keep the current blended teaching methods and have staff teach all large classes online and from home in a post-Covid world. This has been lauded as a revelation, but we do not believe it is the most effective way to teach students, or for them to learn. Lecturers need to go back where they belong: the classroom.

Of course, the current restrictions on the number of students allowed in a room make that difficult for now. In the meantime, the classroom must maximise the opportunities for safe interactions between lecturers and students. Where they cannot meet, students must be offered live streaming of classes designed to maximise the opportunity of live questions and end-of-lecture small talk, using technologies like Owl 360 and online chatrooms. Recorded sessions should be used only as a backup.

We envision a future in which big lecture rooms with several hundred seats are progressively replaced by a more flexible educational system, which takes the best of online learning but focuses on interaction tailored to individual students’ needs rather than recorded lectures.

The current online educational experience will undoubtedly inform the future of our universities, but we must be careful that we do not simply replicate its weaker aspects online. Instead, the focus must be on interpersonal interaction and live communication, and finding ways for technology to enhance those. Plato first identified these as the essence of learning in his Academy some 2,400 years ago They’re still true today.