Universities’ move online ‘must be done the right way’

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Harry Ashworth

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Piano lessons continue for Harry in his childhood bedroom

Harry Ashworth should be in the final term of his first year at Oxford University, studying music.

Instead he is stuck at his parents’ house in south London hunched over a laptop, listening to lectures via Zoom.

He doesn’t feel that the sudden and dramatic change in circumstances has affected his learning too much, but he is missing some aspects of university life.

“I am in a jazz orchestra and that isn’t really happening now. And I would have been playing at the summer balls, so there are social events that I’ve missed.”

Some of his more practical lessons have also been curtailed.

Academically he feels less motivated “which makes me less stressed but also flatter”.

“Psychologically when you are at home it is different. When I am in my tutor’s office I feel a bit more inspired.”

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Getty Images

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Students are getting used to working from home.

Along with students around the world, Harry is getting used to the realities of online learning as part of the global lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The fact that institutions have shifted to a digital model in a matter of weeks is impressive, thinks Kathryn Skelton, chief transformation officer at FutureLearn, an online learning platform owned by the Open University.

Universities have “moved Heaven and Earth” to get to where they are now but still she says that “her heart sinks” when people think that delivering lectures via Zoom is enough.

“Educators need to take a step back and ask not ‘how can I replicate what I do in the classroom’, but ‘how can I redesign this learning experience to take advantage of a whole wealth of technology that can deliver a full learning experience – not just the delivery of information?'”

Her tips include:

  • make a plan
  • think about different ways of delivering information such as podcasts and articles
  • social engagement is key; provoke a conversation and allow students to learn from each other

Shai Reshef, president of online-only University of the People (UofPeople) agrees.

“Lots of universities have shut down and asked professors to move lectures online and I think that many more universities should actually go in this direction, but they need to do it the right way. Don’t have professors speaking for two hours. Adopt the entire pedagogy of online learning.”

At UofPeople that involves daily small classes with a lot of interaction between students.

Students who are refugees, or others who could never afford a traditional university education, are set weekly homework and assignment tasks. The eight-week modular courses are tuition-free and students pay only to sit the end-of-course exams. A year’s worth of tuition costs $1,000 (£824).

UofPeople has seen a huge rise in numbers, with 7,000 new students coming online for the new term.

“A lot are coming to us because of the pandemic. We have students in quarantine who feel the best way to spend their time is going back to school. We have students whose schools have shut down, and they come to us to continue their studies, and they may go back to their schools when they reopen.

“And we have a lot of people who have been laid off and realise that in order to get another job they need to study to change career.”

FutureLearn has also seen demand for online courses rise more than threefold. Like UofPeople there is interest in learning new business skills. It has also seen a rise in interest in English language courses, mental health awareness such as mindfulness, and even courses designed to increase people’s knowledge of coronavirus.

If there is a silver lining to this crisis it is that more people will try out online learning, thinks Ms Skelton.

“That traditional model of 18-to-21 year-olds who go to university, live in halls, is simply not feasible for a lot of people – those with caring responsibilities or those with financial restraints.”

Once the pandemic is over, Mr Reshef thinks universities should consider a hybrid of online and traditional education, with the first year spent learning online and the next two in school.

“It is not clear that universities will be open next year, and even if they are open they will have to have social distancing measures. Online is there and can continue to function seamlessly,” he said.

Online learning has had a mixed history. So-called Moocs (massive open online courses) were seen as revolutionary when they were first introduced, but retention rates are low. According to a study by MIT, the courses had a dropout rate of about 96% on average over five years.

For students hoping to begin a traditional university journey in the autumn, there is still a great deal of uncertainty.

Manchester University has already decided to deliver the bulk of its learning online in the autumn term, and similar discussions are going on in universities around the UK and beyond.

But for some courses, such as medicine, online-only will be tricky.

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Getty Images

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Some universities will have to stay online in the autumn term

Holly Leedham has just turned 18, and was looking forward to starting a new chapter of life at Liverpool University in the autumn, studying law with accounting. Now that has been thrown into doubt.

“I would be really disappointed as the experience of making friends wouldn’t be there. I think us having to pay full tuition fees and being at home isn’t fair either, and I’d hope that would be reduced somehow.”

But she said joining the university – even if it was online – would be better than deferring.

“I may as well be at uni while the world recovers from what I imagine to be a frightening recession.”

Ellie Yeomans, who had hoped to study Sports Management at Nottingham Trent University, is similarly pragmatic.

“I am assuming that the first term may be online and that would be gutting for everyone, but I think everyone just has to get on with it.”

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