X Close

Institute of Education Blog


Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education


Higher education in the era of COVID-19: have universities considered all the issues for moving teaching online?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 7 July 2020

Gillian Stokes, Alison O’Mara-Eves, Antonia Simon, Preethy D’Souza, Meena Khatwa and Michelle Richardson

The coronavirus pandemic arrived like Nature’s curveball from the blue, and it has had a huge impact on the landscape of higher education (HE). Teaching and learning from home have rapidly become the new normal, with no clear end in sight.

The discourse surrounding HE teaching and learning just as rapidly shifted focus.

Universities’ ability to deliver ‘fit for purpose’ remote learning is under scrutiny. Staff, parents and students are raising worries about privacy, technology and teaching methods. Lecturers have engaged readily and adapted teaching to try to ensure the best experience for their students. But they also have concerns.

We believe discussions about HE and online teaching need to become more nuanced. Here, we identify four key issues that are vital for HE institutions to explore and understand.

  • Protecting academic status, knowledge and intellectual property in an online environment

The recording and streaming of lectures has long been a source of unease. The “Neflixisation” of taught materials risks increasing the surveillance of teaching performance, eroding the ability to take legitimate industrial action, and more worryingly, replacing teaching staff. This has serious implications for job security and the very nature of the university lecture­­—and the value of the lecturer.

HE teaching staff work hard to ensure that their lectures have theoretical relevance, encompass current practices and global changes, and offer students the best possible learning experience. A single lecture requires many preparation hours – and years of experience – to research and write. The streaming of lectures that are a year old or more undermines the evolution of knowledge.

In connection with this, the pandemic has further confused the issue of intellectual property (IP). Who owns the content of a lecture? One 2018 study showed that 18 out of 19 universities confirmed that ownership of Intellectual Property was held by the institution, not the lecturer – although most policies did address the amount of time that recordings can be kept, and protocols for when teaching staff leave. The rise of virtual learning means clarity is needed urgently.

  • Managing and supporting staff through the transition from face-to-face to online teaching

Most universities are implementing systems to support staff in delivering online learning for at least the first term of the 2020/21 academic year. We believe the realistic way forward over the next 6 months (while, like other sectors, universities are still in crisis mode) will be to focus on the pedagogical motto ‘small is beautiful’. Our expectations should be to undertake immediate, pragmatic changes that do not seek to reinvent the wheel. These changes need to draw on the existing wealth of experience of our colleagues already delivering online teaching. It is important to do our jobs well and to ensure that students feel confident in the system. Universities would be wise not to overreach, or to make unrealistic promises.

  • Rethinking the ‘student experience’ as both individual and collective

Changes to the student experience have been discussed in the media, but there has perhaps not been enough distinction between different types of students. For example, continuing students who already have social and professional networks may not miss out as much as incoming students. Undergraduates seeking the ‘university experience’ of dorm life and social events may miss being on campus more than postgraduates. International students may miss the cultural opportunity of attending a foreign university, while athletic students may miss out on college-level sports.

However, these broad categorisations won’t apply to everyone. How do we identify the needs and expectations of different student ‘types’ and try to mitigate potential deficits in their experience?

There are various ways we can enrich students’ experience. Students should be actively involved in collaborative learning, with the teacher as facilitator. Universities would need to find ways to provide virtual extracurricular activities and social events; for example, universities including Loughborough are being creative in offering sporting activities such as lockdown competitions and challenges.

All of this will require universities to rethink how we can support individual students, while maintaining some semblance of the collective experiences that make them feel a part of a community.

  • Protecting the ‘university student’ identity

Although the ‘university student’ identity means different things for different students, the ‘rite of passage’ associated with adopting it is an important shared experience. The reality next term is that studying remotely could well damage the sense of belonging to a community of learners. This has left students, some who are mid-flow through their academic learning, feeling that they have not had ‘any closure’ and are left ‘in limbo’. This disruption has affected their studies and wellbeing.

New students will potentially be denied the rite of passage that is university life and the consequences could have long-term effects. For instance, the importance of a student identity has been associated with work-readiness, and this could disadvantage them in an increasingly competitive job market.

There is no question the rapid shift to online learning will have multifarious nuanced impacts for HE staff and students, and we must begin sorting these out. Aspirationally though, we have an opportunity to rethink HE provision beyond the necessity of the COVID-19 crisis, enhancing the value of teaching staff in terms of their IP and professional development, while supporting students’ learning needs and enriching their experiences.

Image by mattthewafflecat from Pixabay 


Leave a Reply