Online shift forces end to ‘poor relation’ status of teaching

As universities renew their pedagogical efforts, there is no case to lower tuition fees, summit hears

September 2, 2020
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The rapid shift to online learning spurred by the pandemic has forced universities and academics to rethink their whole approach to teaching, which had become a “poor relation” to research, the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit has heard.

In a panel discussion considering whether the Covid-19 era would mark a new dawn for the sector, panellists told the online event that the benefit of creating so many digital courses would endure long after the crisis.

Susan McCahan, vice-provost of academic programmes at the University of Toronto, said her institution had gone from offering 150 courses online two years ago to providing several thousand now, adding that the process had prompted academics to “really deeply” reassess how they taught students.

“So when they return to teaching in person, they are going to return to a different approach, and thinking process, around their courses than they may have had before,” she said.

Her points were echoed by Richard Miles, vice-provost for academic performance at the University of Sydney. “If there is going to be a silver lining out of this, it is going to be making universities like ours think much harder about…teaching, which has sometimes been a sort of poor relation,” he said.

This was all the more important given that “for most universities it is our bread and butter; it pays the bills, and it even pays for much of our glorious research as well”, he said.

Bin Yang, provost and vice-president at Tsinghua University, said the benefit of online technology was more often in the way it complemented traditional methods rather than in replacing them with distance learning.

“Leveraging the advantage of online technology, complementing in-person components, has led to greater levels of learning inclusion,” he said.

Citing one example of this, Professor Yang said student surveys were suggesting that “learners are more comfortable to text classroom feedback and questions instead of raising hands”.

The data from these interactions could be used to create “smart teaching tools” that enable teachers to better understand their students’ behaviour, he added. “Smart teaching is making learning personalised and allowing learners to learn according to their aptitude.”

Meanwhile, the panel also refuted suggestions that the move towards online education meant that fees for tuition should be lowered.

Clay Shirky, vice-provost of educational technologies at New York University, said that “given the human capital involved in online education” was no different from in-person teaching and required specialist IT infrastructure as well, “there are no immediate cost savings”.

“We continue to recruit the best faculty we can find, and we continue to pay them competitively. Given that is the single largest input to online, there isn’t any massive cost savings that we can pass on to the student,” he said.

Professor McCahan also emphasised that as the internet had made information ubiquitous, the “core” part of a degree education had become “assessment and feedback”.

“That is no less expensive and, I would argue, is increasingly important in education. Doing that online actually requires as much or more effort” because feedback often needed to be personalised, she said.


Print headline: Online shift enhances status of teaching

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