Lecturers can’t sustain the hasty pivot to online teaching. We need a plan B

Inter-university collaboration to develop core online curricula may be the only way to preserve quality, says Matt Jenner 

April 30, 2020
Synchronised swimmers and digital connections composite
Source: Getty montage

In the past few months, universities across the world have been forced to quickly adapt to a new way of teaching and learning. Academic and professional staff have pulled out all the stops to make the best of a bad situation and a lot of the feedback about how it has worked out – at least from the academics’ perspective – has been relatively positive.

However, it is time to look forward to future semesters and to think seriously about what a post-coronavirus university campus might look like – and none of the obvious options look particularly palatable.

On the face of it, the choice is between continuing emergency remote teaching, putting every module online or crossing fingers and banking on a return to normal. All of these pose significant risks.

Emergency remote teaching is not online learning, and students will not be blind to the difference – particularly as the lockdown takes an increasing toll on teachers’ energy and spirit. Few academics will be capable of sustaining this hasty pivot, and they won’t get the time and support needed to develop their own bespoke online learning in the coming months. Quality and enthusiasm will wear out.

Moreover, some students will continue to be excluded because of lack of bandwidth, study space, inconvenient scheduling or because their lives have been disrupted. It just isn’t sustainable. We can patch current problems, but the future demands actual solutions.

With this in mind, it is important to start putting appropriate measures in place now to ensure that students can continue to receive a proper education – before the demand for refunds intensifies, and international student numbers dwindle further.

If lockdowns persist, higher education may continue to heavily depend on fully, or highly blended, online learning. But developing effective online learning requires upfront investment that usually provides a return over a timescale of years, not months. Can institutions really manage to put every scheduled module into a fully online, quality-assured format? And just for one or two semesters – just when universities’ finances and staff are already stretched so thinly?

Thankfully, there’s another way forward. Consortia of universities could, instead, develop a reduced set of centralised, purpose-built online courses, creating a more focused curriculum specifically for this situation. Such an initiative would work towards the goal of supporting students, avoiding burnout and upholding academic rigour.

A reduced curriculum should still offer students experience, knowledge and skills for academia, employment and society. Topics would be guided by the consortia, working with expert voices from across the sector, and consist of content and activities suitable for the level of study and students’ previous experience of higher education – from freshmen to returning postgraduates.

If the lockdown restrictions are relaxed and some students are lucky enough to be allowed back on to campus, they could be taught alongside others learning remotely. The latter would be able to connect to a rich, sociable and inclusive learning environment; teachers would be supported in how to interact and engage with their students in their own cohorts, thereby building the social bonds that are the basis of university life.

While there may be some dispute about the finer details of what this centralised curriculum should look like, we can look for pointers to agreed lists of common graduate attributes and study skills. For undergraduates, topics could include academic literacy; digital literacy; maths, statistics and data processing; critical thinking, rhetoric and debate; environment and sustainability; and entrepreneurship and innovation. Postgraduate topics could include research methods; statistics and writing literature reviews; advanced data modelling and processing techniques; designing and managing academic projects; dissertation writing and planning; and career planning.

The curriculum could be constructed in a way that makes topics stackable, allowing for up to three to be covered in a semester. Each topic could be built in both condensed formats (50 hours over four weeks) or full (150 hours over 12 weeks) formats. The level of learning would be clearly indicated for module selection by students or packages made by academic staff. The modules could follow established academic governance to ensure they are high quality and could be made to a standard resembling the EMC Common Microcredential Framework.

In addition, content could be made available as open educational resources or under a shared Creative Commons licence, where applicable. This would extend its value beyond the immediate needs of the pandemic and also ensure, by permitting reuse by other academic institutions, that no university or college is left behind in the current crisis.

Critics will shriek: “Conveyor belt!” and “What about my lab class?” But they must also acknowledge the global rationale: pandemic, lockdown, unemployment, recession. We can’t watch students, teachers or whole universities struggle or even go under because of an inability to offer a sustainable programme of high-quality online learning. We must grasp alternatives that uphold standards, maintain engagement and support students.

We all want to go back to normal. Yet the reality is that the future isn’t known and we must plan ahead regardless. Your lab class can wait.

Matt Jenner is head of learning at FutureLearn.

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Reader's comments (1)

Thinking of options beyond the emergency switch to online learning is certainly necessary. And while I agree that we cannot go on with simply moving lectures online, there are some cases where the labs cannot wait. I am talking of medical education, particularly in my field, which is veterinary medicine. There is a lot that can be taught remotely, but there is no way to teach practical skills without being in the presence of an actual animal. Or access to diagnostic material. Should we perhaps consider how we can provide in person education that is sustainable even during flare ups of a pandemic that will, most likely, occur in the future months or years? At least for those disciplines that require in person teaching, could we re-think the way we set up physical spaces to allow for teaching during lock-downs? I don't mean just spacing out chairs and making people wear masks, I mean focusing on hygiene, providing tests and vaccines (when they finally become available), and really allowing sick people to stay home - something most employers speak of but secretly discourage or at least look down on. Essential work goes on, even during lock downs. Is teaching practical medical skills not essential? After all, would you want to take your dog or cat, or trust the health of your cows, chickens or sheep, to a veterinarian who practice his/her skills on a simulator?