I have to admit that I’m getting somewhat freaked out by what I hear is happening in September as universities and colleges return to ‘normal.’ These may just be blips in an orderly return, or they may be portents of major future disruption.
The end of (non-interactive) lectures?
In the UK, the Senate of the University of Manchester, one of the leading universities in the UK, has signalled a permanent and comprehensive move to ‘blended learning’.
From ‘My Manchester News‘ (May 14)
This means there will be a balance of synchronous activities, which take place on-campus at a specific scheduled moment in time, and asynchronous activities, where students are free to choose a time before a certain deadline that suits them. For example, you’ll access explanatory material via video when it suits your schedule, while in-person sessions on campus will be used for labs, seminar discussions or in-depth Q&As.
The Guardian newspaper went so far as to report that
‘Prof Danielle George, head of blended learning, confirmed in a clip of the interview shared with the Guardian that this would mean large lectures would stay online, since they are “didactic and non-interactive”. However, she said “there isn’t that much across the university” which is not interactive.
This was followed, not surprisingly, by a lot of back-pedalling following a major student backlash, fearing that the university was moving everything online, and students demanding reductions in their nearly £10,000 (C$17,000) a year tuition fees.
What the university is actually proposing is what will eventually become the norm for undergraduate education, as institutions begin to separate face-to-face and online activities into what they do best. The storm this announcement has caused partly reflects a poor communications strategy on the university’s part, and somewhat sensational reporting by the Guardian.
However, the suggestion by Professor George that large, non-interactive lectures will stay online is intriguing. I’m wondering though whether this is actual policy or just a wish. I suspect the latter, because the decision on whether a lecture will be ‘active’ will surely be made by individual instructors under the banner of academic freedom. It will be a brave (and probably foolish) institution that made this actual policy, as welcome pedagogically as it might be.
Perhaps more significant is the demand from at least undergraduate students, and particularly first year or freshman students, for ‘the campus experience.’ This has some academic elements, such as the ability to meet and discuss academic issues informally over a coffee with other students, or chance or planned encounters with instructors, but it also includes a lot of non-academic factors, such as the ability to meet a wide range of people of roughly the same age, sports and cultural activities. Is it then the fear of having lectures online, or the loss of these other aspects of the campus experience, that most upsets students?
I raise this because student fees cover much more than just instruction. Perhaps it’s time to deconstruct tuition fees, and charge separately for instruction, overheads, and other services on campus. I suspect instruction will still account for the major part of fees, but at least provide students with accurate and reliable information about what they (or their parents) are paying for.
No vaccination, no education
On July 13, CBC News reported:
Effective Sept. 7, Seneca College, which has campuses in Toronto, York Region and, Peterborough will make vaccinations a condition for students and employees coming to campus in the fall term for “in person teaching, learning and working”.
Seneca is the first school in Canada to implement the measure, but various academic institutions are doing the same in the U.S; Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale, Princeton, the entire public systems in New York and California are requiring vaccinations for everyone to come on campus.
Why though is such a decision being left to individual institutions? Surely this is a health issue, and it should be government that mandates this. If it’s essential at Seneca, why is it not essential in other colleges and universities in Ontario?
What was not clear from the announcement is whether it applies to instructors as well – if not, why not? And if it’s a sensible policy for Covid-19, why not for the flu?
‘If I can’t work from home, I quit’
There is a very interesting discussion taking place at the moment on WCET Discuss about the number of people working in universities or colleges who are resigning if they cannot continue to work from home. Apparently many institutions are requiring staff to be on campus, in the office, during office hours, five days a week, from September, and as a result there has been a spike in resignations and retirements. It seems that institutions who offer at least some flexibility in working from home are more likely to keep valuable, experienced staff than those institutions with an inflexible ‘must-be-on-campus’ policy.
There are a number of issues here, and they vary depending on the types of staff. If students come on campus, must all services be available on campus? It was clear that during the pandemic that many services previously offered only on campus were offered just as successfully online (see Bouchey, B., Gratz, E., & Kurland, S. (2021); indeed it enabled some services to be available 24×7, and provided more access to students. If these services though are now available only on campus, then the staff have to be there.
A major issue is who decides whether a course should be online: the institution or the instructor? Many instructors prefer to work from home, but should that be the main criterion that determines whether a course should be online? Surely this should be a decision based on the needs of the students and the demands of the subject matter rather than those of the instructor. Whether a course should be fully online, blended or fully on-campus surely should be a department or program decision, in full consultation with instructors. (HyFlex courses get round this problem, but they require much more work for instructors.)
Suddenly, as a result of the experiences during Covid-19, everything is getting more complex. Things previously taken for granted are now coming under question.
This in my view is a good thing (unless you are an administrator). Greater flexibility is needed, for students, instructors and staff, but at the same time, quality service, whether teaching or student support, remains essential.
Finding the right balance is going to be an interesting challenge over the next few months, but the new normal should not be, well, as normal.