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Institute of Education Blog


Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education


Universities: learning outside the lecture hall

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 22 September 2021

Allison Littlejohn.

Lockdown led to the largest transformation of teaching in the history of UK higher education. In March 2020, the entire university workforce had to transition to working online. This was remarkable transformation for institutions that, founded on tradition and convention, tend to be slow to change.  As the 2021-22 academic year begins, record numbers of UK students are about to enter our universities once again.

National reports suggest that both students and staff found the lack of face-to-face learning and social interactions over the past year or so difficult. Enforced isolation during lockdown had an impact on student mental health, while students’ representatives have run campaigns questioning the value of online education under lockdown conditions and called for a refund on student fees. They have been arguing for a return to face-to-face lectures and on-campus social activities.

As for staff, our study of the experiences of university staff as they moved to online teaching during lockdown found that academics, especially those with little prior experience of digital education, had to invest considerable extra time redesigning courses, recording lectures and connecting with students to provide feedback. Some, particularly women, spent long hours and emotional energy offering online pastoral care to students who needed their support. This unseen work was not factored into staff workload and was in addition to ‘business as usual’ teaching activities.

As the pandemic continues, public health concerns remain about a full-time return to campus for 2021-22. What is the best way forward? Many UK universities are taking a cautious approach this semester. Several have announced that, although tutorials and supervision meetings will be in-person, they will continue to have lectures online in the Autumn of 2021.

There may, in fact, be pedagogical as well as public health benefits to this approach. Our study suggests that in the first weeks of the pandemic, established teaching practices, such as lecturing or tutorials, were replicated online. However, over time academics had more time to develop an appreciation of the distinctive benefits of online learning and creatively expanded their teaching practice. For example, discussions with student groups in MS Teams  generated captions and transcripts in real-time, providing invaluable resources that students could use to review what was discussed. This has proved popular with all students including those with English as a second language or those learning new technical terms.

Whiteboard technology, also in MS Teams, allowed academics and students to interact by simultaneously drawing and annotating images. This allows academics to explain difficult concepts using a variety of media. These are examples where digital technologies are used to enhance what’s possible in face-to-face classrooms to help students learn difficult concepts. Universities can build on these small steps forward in the new academic year.

By continuing lectures online and organising tutorials on campus, universities are making use of the time students and academics are together to discuss concepts and provide feedback. This means that, rather than spending valuable time together on campus listening to lectures, better use is made of the time students spend with academics and peers through active forms of learning such as discussion, problem solving and practical work in laboratories, studios and real-world sites.

Over time the ‘online lecture’ can morph into online teaching where digital technologies are used more creatively to help teach difficult concepts in ways that are not possible without the technology. Accordingly, the decision by universities to continue lectures online could help lead to a better education system for our students in the long term. Rather than returning to the ‘old normal’, universities can aim to improve learning by providing a variety of ways for students to interact with peers and staff while they study, blending face-to-face teaching with digital education.

To understand how to optimise these opportunities, universities need to work in partnership with students to build on what we learned during lockdown.

Staff too need to be supported. The activities and time involved to support online and blended learning is different than for traditional methods. There’s more up-front time needed to plan, design and create learning resources using different media. Academic staff have experienced online teaching, but this has been under the emergency conditions, with little time to rethink their teaching and how they might capitalise on the affordances of digital systems. Important – yet unseen – caring labour needs to be made visible, encouraged and rewarded.

What we should not do is assume that online delivery represents a ‘cost cutting’ measure. Costing models show that the time needed to prepare and produce online teaching materials, even basic lecture capture resources, is higher than for on-campus lectures. Online teaching becomes cost-effective only when thousands or tens of thousands of students – not hundreds – use the same high-cost, digital materials. Campus universities, which have relatively small numbers of students compared with online universities, cannot easily recoup the costs associated with creating online courses.

In the long-term, reducing face-to-face lecture time could be transformed into a positive experience for students and university staff, by using digital technologies to teach students in ways that are not otherwise possible. We all need to think carefully about how we create a more effective education system where students and staff freely interact using the best of traditional and digital methods.


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