Durham v-c moves to clarify plans for online learning

Stuart Corbridge says plans for courses to move fully online were contingency planning for potential continuing Covid-19 disruptions

April 21, 2020
Source: istock

Any moves into online teaching by Durham University will be “additional” to on-campus provision and will only come after consultation with staff, according to its vice-chancellor, following claims the institution was planning to make online courses the core of its offer, partly in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Stuart Corbridge told Times Higher Education that “it remains the case that the core of what we will offer educationally at Durham is the collegiate residential model”.

Professor Corbridge said that the plans to go fully online were a contingency only if the university was unable to go start the new academic year on campus, which had been conflated with a separate plan to “explore the possibility of more online education” in addition to what was already offered at Durham.

“The plan is for the new term to start on campus as usual on 5 October,” Professor Corbridge said. However, the university was also preparing for a “worst-case scenario” of responding to further Covid-19 outbreaks in the autumn, he added.

He said that proposals to enhance the university’s provision of online learning would be additional to its current educational offerings, would not result in less face-to-face teaching and would only happen after “extensive consultation”.

The student newspaper Palatinate first reported that the university had drafted proposals for “a radical restructure” of the Durham curriculum. It reported that the university would permanently put online resources at the core of its educational offer and “require a new design to the Durham University curriculum” in order that all degree programmes can be fully accessible remotely.

Over 300 staff signed an open letter to the vice-chancellor, which said any “proposal to make permanent changes to the curriculum in the midst of a global health crisis is…both cynical and reckless”.

The university “has invested considerably” in facilities to support the future of the collegiate residential model, including a new teaching and learning centre, a new sports and well-being centre and two new colleges, Professor Corbridge said.

Durham has lagged behind other UK universities when it comes to offering online degrees, he continued. A move to offer more distance learning would allow the institution to diversify its income stream, as the institution is more dependent than most other Russell Group universities on on-campus students for income, and provide opportunities to reach other audiences, he said.

However, the proposals, which would see some students study online only, some taught on campus, and some doing both, “would be wholly additional, would be voluntary and would be picked up differently across the university if that’s what we decide we want to do”, he said.

Professor Corbridge said that he understood why staff had raised concerns. “There was a lack of clarity in the early draft paper, but it’s only the start of a journey,” he added.

The two resolutions – the first to prepare for the start of the next term with the possibility of being unable to return to campus and the second to address the university’s future online offering – will be put in front of the university’s senate on 22 April. “If we don’t agree, we will then consult staff… A wise administration tries to listen to what people’s concerns are," Professor Corbridge said.


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Reader's comments (2)

‘The early draft paper’ - love it. Caught in shady company with the wide boys of The Cambridge group- a private for-profit bunch of sharks.
More mendacity from Durham's senior management. Both sets of proposals--the first, clearly issued as a panic measure right before the long Easter weekend, and the second, hurriedly revised to respond to widespread criticism of the initial proposals--obviously conflated short-term contingency planning and long-term structural changes to Durham's educational offer. At no point has there been open, transparent, and "widespread" consultation of either students or staff. That is why Durham staff wrote and circulated two letters, each of them garnering more than 400 signatures, protesting against not only the content of the proposals but also the way they were unevenly distributed and consulted on. That is also why over 1,000 Durham students and offer holders submitted a petition to Durham's senate protesting against the proposals. Senior management have been forced onto the back foot, as is apparent from Corbridge's attempt at media management here.


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