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The loss of the lecture? Imagining a post Covid-19 world

This guest blog post is written by Christina Howell-Richardson, one of our PGC Learning and Teaching in Higher Education tutors, drawing on student discussion forum postings about the future of higher education.  At this point of the pandemic nobody can accurately predict what will happen in the next year or two, although we can speculate on different scenarios. 

Written by Christina Howell-Richardson |

Most of the messages in the discussion forum focused on what seems to be the inevitability of dominance of digital technologies in digital education. This is brief summary of the main themes:

A marked increase in blended and fully online learning.

Almost everyone anticipated a significant increase in online learning. This will be partly prompted by the necessity to deliver education online during the COVID 19 pandemic which has introduced all educators, across the globe, to teaching and learning using online platforms. 
Interestingly, nobody seems to be in favour of fully online courses across the board, although there is enthusiasm for blended learning.

Blending face to face interactions with asynchronous online learning can bring some of the advantages of online without the disadvantages of lack of context and lack of social presence. The main advantages of online learning are seen as flexibility, both in respect to how and when people study or attend classes; opening up opportunities to provide access to expertise and courses that cannot be sourced or provided locally; knowledge transfer; access to information resources and human resources ; international partnership between institutions.
The obvious and undeniably powerful advantage of face to face interactions is to offer context, social presence, personality and a multi-sensory experience.  

Where online or even blended learning is taught under the umbrella of large, global distance learning organisations, there is an argument for a strong role for local institutions in planning the curriculum, teaching and assessment to be fit to the needs of their students.
Probably, the most compelling argument for blended learning is the fact that not all assessments should be undertaken online.  One example is that of the OSCE assessment in nurse education. This is an assessment of complex clinical skills, in different settings. Should such an assessment be attempted online?

What do we need?

If an increase in digital education is irrevocably part of the future, then investment is needed in training both educators and our students.
Teacher and lecturers need training and additional forms of support from educational developers and learning technologists to teach online. There is also a need for revised infrastructures in educational institutions; although most people would not support an argument for an elimination of lecture halls and the eradication of all types of “broadcast learning”.  

Our students also need to be taught to develop academic digital literacy skills.  This is a completely different skill set from their other digital search or communication skills and from academic literacy skills they use to access university libraries or their lecturers in face to face contexts. Peer learning, peer mentoring and greater student participation in developing the curriculum will be prevalent.

The digital divide

The digital divide has been raised by several people, for example:

“ …  a problem which we are already witnessing and that cannot be underestimated is the digital divide: “The International Telecommunications Union found in 2019 that while 97% of the world’s population live in areas with some internet availability, either mobile or wired, only 53.6% are connected.” If the shift towards blended learning is to be successful, governments and universities must work together to provide better access to digital devices.”

If such a large proportion of the world’s population are not connected to the Internet then the gaps of inequality and of educational attainment will steadily increase between those who have the means to access digital resources; and knowledge and information resources and those who do not.

Further the digital divide exists within nation states as much as across nation states. The underlying question is one of funding; and governments and universities need to work together to provide this infrastructure as a universal right. 

The loss of the lecture?

There is an overwhelming sense of regret in thinking of the loss of the lecture, for example, one respondent’s descriptions of experiential learning, leading her Art History students on exploratory walks around London.  Although no-one has said this explicitly in the forum, the value of a lecture in a physical lecture hall is a collective live experience in listening to a lecturer talk about their subject, developing and argument; and drawing on their own experience. It’s like watching the streaming of a theatre performance play, or music or taking a virtual tour of a museum. It is a thinner, lesser experience.  

Social Distancing – 3 years on

One respondent has written a perspective on teaching and learning 3 years on where social distancing and self-isolation are a norm.
There are two very notable predictions in this account that I think we can see playing out already:

  • In a climate of uncertainty unemployment is at quite a high level; and there is an increase in applications to HE from older students and those seeking a career change.
  • Student mobility to attend universities in other countries (internationalism) will be significantly reduced.

Covid-19 support

The Centre for Distance Education has compiled a set of guidance and resources to assist with putting teaching and assessment online fast, and with planning and implementing a distance learning strategy in the longer term.

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