Since March I have been working at home, as has most of the UK in the Covid-19 pandemic. Reading this title you may be wondering if I have taken leave of my senses to say long live the pandemic, but I am hopeful I have not (although I admit I have been talking to my dog more than usual and teaching my parents to Skype nearly finished me off). Of course, I do not mean the pandemic should continue but I do think some of the effects of the pandemic on Higher Education could be positive and here are my thoughts on the top two benefits.
Recognition that online learning is still learning
For many years, the sector has considered online or distance learning to be the runt of the educational litter. There has been an implicit (and often explicit) view that it is a cheap, easy alternative to face to face education. The pandemic has meant that many universities have been transported into the world of online learning overnight. Academics and professional services alike have been thrown in at the deep end - everyone has flapped around trying to keep their heads above water and, although many have coped admirably, online learning doesn't look so easy now.
Good online teaching and learning is hard to design, deliver and excel in - arguably more so than face to face because you cannot rely on synchronous communication and that all important feedback in the lecture theatre or seminar from the students' facial expressions. No university in the UK, or the world, does this better than the experts at the Open University (although most topical debates on the pandemic and online learning have chosen to ignore them in favour of input from the Russell Group). The OU uses careful design and meticulous planning to produce their courses and the quality is outstanding. The OU model won't work for many universities but what it teaches us is that excellence can be achieved in this mode of learning, and whilst it should be aspired to, it isn't easy or a second class citizen.
We clearly cannot achieve excellence in online teaching and learning in a reactionary situation like this. Not only does it cost a lot of money to do what the OU do but it takes an infrastructure most universities do not have and expertise that is not always there. That is not to say other universities won't do a great job here - I am confident we will at King's College in the Psychology Department - but it is important to recognise that this pandemic is the start of the journey, not the end.
So now we have been forced to open our eyes to the potential of online learning we need to start to reflect more carefully on what it means to teach and learn in all modes and make sure we identify our weaknesses and develop ourselves until we can do better. This inevitably requires investment and universities are in financial difficulties, as are many sectors at this time, but we have a moral responsibility as educators to deliver a quality education and in this strange new world that includes online education. The pandemic is the springboard but I hope HE can now finally see online learning for what it is and play the long game.
My dissertation was drafted in full one month before the deadline, which was luck more than judgement, but it turned out to be a blessing because the day I gave a draft to my supervisor, my Dad had heart attack and I left university to travel home. Ever since then I have set deadlines ahead of real deadlines and organised my life like a military operation because, well, you never know what is round the corner. When I started working the OU years ago as a tutor I remember being so impressed at how the students organised themselves, with nothing but an A3 study planner, they seemed to be entirely independent - it was inspirational to observe. I have seen some equally impressive scheduling from King's students from time to time as well but for many the structure of face to face education reduces the need for students to show the same level of autonomy over their learning. They look at a timetable and turn up or they are asked a question in a seminar and that drives them to look into something more. Online learning takes that enforced schedule away for many and reduces the natural interactions that occur during teaching to spur you on. It puts the student back in charge of their learning and this is no bad thing. I hope that those students who have experienced this come out of it richer - more in charge of their learning, owning it more. This will help them in any return to face to face teaching but it will also be a useful skill to take into the working world.