UK academics ‘at breaking point’ over shift to online teaching

Psychologist says scholars are still in ‘emergency’ mode and universities should recognise that the year ahead ‘may not be brilliant’ in terms of teaching quality

September 18, 2020
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Academics across the UK are “at breaking point” as a result of the pressure to shift their teaching online, according to one mental health expert, who urged caution over judging the success of remote learning based on the upcoming academic year.

Nicola Byrom, senior lecturer in psychology at King’s College London and founder of the charity Student Minds, said the Covid-19 pandemic had created “a real opportunity to improve accessibility” to higher education and “to make the learning experience better for students” by embracing technology.

However, she said, there were “limits” to capitalising on the crisis and universities needed to “stay mindful of the scale of the challenge”.

“Academics across the country, I think, are at breaking point with the pressure that they’ve been under to redesign teaching over the summer. They had to cope with changes in assessments, uncertainty for the autumn and then redesign the way they teach. All of that change is substantive, and change is difficult to deal with,” she told the Times Higher Education Student Success Forum.

Dr Byrom added that junior academics were “under the most pressure” because their high teaching loads are compounded by the stress of career uncertainties and, in many cases, caring for young children.

In light of this, institutions “need to be kind in recognising that this year ahead may not be brilliant” and in understanding that the quality of online education might not be as strong as it could be, she said.

“It’s an emergency response to providing teaching online,” she continued. “If what we deliver this year isn’t brilliant, that doesn’t mean that this shift online is bad. That means that it’s going to take time to adjust to change, to learn new skills and to build on that.

“I want to urge caution in judging this year as demonstrating whether being online has benefits because I think there may be more benefits than we would see just in this year in this emergency response.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (5)

As my wife (a University lecturer) just said......"..off to another morning fighting with technology". There has been no thought whatsoever given to the amount of additional work created. My own University even re-designed the VLE over the summer, creating another mountain of unwanted additional work.
Equally no thought has been given to the difficulties and extra work faced by professional services staff in implementing and supporting the technologies enabling the provision of online teaching and working from home and the pace with which this needed to be done. Surely the technology which has created a safe environment for staff and students to work in is a thing to be welcomed ? Maybe a positive that can come out of this crisis is that University staff will embrace the skills necessary to adapt and survive in a digital world, seeing the benefits new systems and processes can bring to the learning experience, rather than being shackled by the aversion to change which has held progress back for so long.
Some of the academics should wise up and get on with their jobs and stop moaning. If they cannot cope then they should look for another career, the students are fine with technology and if the academics are no good at it do the training and make your module interesting. I really have no sympathy for all the moners and groaners in this case.
The shift to the online academic environment and teaching space has in many cases gone quite smoothly and many academics have made the transition. They have adapted and engaged in online technologies and the associated implications. The process has been challenging. The process has generated anxiety and this continues, universities should find time to investigate this and understand it. Teaching loads of staff and junior staff in particular have been impacted and this needs to be acknowledged, in the first instance. There are issues of skill matching and utilisation to consider. Performance metrics should be revisited and adjusted to reflect the current situation. Probably a survey of staff and, indeed students would be useful. For sure, the educational environment has changed, and a comprehensive strategic response is required.
Again we generalise. Both in articles and in commentary. Some academics will still be in panic mode and struggling with technology as well as redesigning the familiar. Others will be embracing technology or have been waiting for this opportunity for some time. Others will be going with a mixed approach of using technology to make the familiar as engaging as they can without losing the pedagogy from trying to cram in too much "dynamism and excitement" with endless online polling in quizzes and and small group work thinking it's the digital answer to the didactic lecture. Equally some students will be perfectly fine with the technology. And they will have two monitors and good connectivity. Others will struggle to login and not be used to having to do much more than save their passwords and never remember them again. And at the same time professional services staff will find themselves with backlogs of work to do through a blend of all of the above as the normal problems with registration, academics not finding what they need or not having access to do many things themselves, and incomplete lists of students and timetabling errors and eccentricities become magnified and staffing numbers are stretched. There will be lessons learnt. And there will be positives to come out of all this. And yes some people are strained and stressed and stretched. And some students are scared. And some students are excited and embracing the start of this new year. But what we have to stop doing is failing to recognise that a university is an adapting and evolving living organism that is so much more than the generalised statements put out about "all the hard work everyone is doing" and "student experience will suffer" or "academics are at breaking point". Every course is different. Every academic is different. Every university has its own processes and procedures. Not every academic works hard. Not every student wants a large-scale lecture or a small group session. No university is a one size, one approach fits all. And it shouldn't be - because we're people and we all have different skills and strengths and weaknesses.

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