Deputy Viewpoint Editors, Jessica Burt and Sofia Brousset, argue for and against the merits of online and remote teaching.
Yes – Jess Burt – 27%
Crises have a strange habit of producing change. This pandemic has forced individuals and institutions to adapt to extraordinary circumstances, with the education system seeing some of the most drastic changes. Online learning has no doubt caused frustration, anxiety, and confusion, but this is largely due to the context with which it has been subjected to people, rather than flaws with the actual concept itself. If anything, with the benefits it can provide in terms of accessibility and flexibility, it is surprising that it has taken a global pandemic for the changes to be implemented.
With online learning, you can wake up at six in the morning or two in the afternoon; you can watch three lectures in a row or one a day; you can watch from your bed, your desk, or your bath (or more reasonably, for students abroad, from the comfort of their home thousands of miles away). Not only can students choose when to do lectures, they can now have some say over how long it takes. You can slow down those unintelligible lecturers who speak like they’re trying to beat their words-per-minute record, or speed up those that think talking at a snail’s pace makes concepts easier to understand. As employment has developed to match modern life, becoming increasingly flexible with hours and holidays, education has lagged behind. Now is the chance for a form of education that can fit in with people’s lives, around part-time jobs, currently-non-existent social lives, and essential snack breaks.
Online learning may have come as a shock to some but calls for its implementation have long been heard in St Andrews. In February of this year, students with disabilities made their case for lecture capture in The Saint, arguing that students who may miss them due to doctors appointments and illness should not be penalised and left behind for being unable to attend in person. With over 15% of students at St Andrews having a disability, it is logical that the university would make changes. Anna-Ruth Cockerham, the SRC Disability Officer, argued that since lockdown online learning has benefited some disabled students in St Andrews and, in a recent interview with The Saint, said she hoped “some people take lessons from this and some of these things can stick around.” The ability for students to pause lectures, slow them down, and re-watch is useful for everyone but is especially beneficial for students with additional learning needs.
New teaching styles have also developed out of necessity. Desperate times call for desperate measures and this desperation has resulted in new methods for lectures and tutorials alike. Our Lord and Saviour Microsoft Teams has provided the opportunity for small group discussions breaking off in tutorials, a chance for students to lead conversations with each other instead of staying silent and leaving tutors to give mini-lectures to fill awkward silences. Fear of the dreaded dead air online has also resulted in tutors making students prepare for tutorials beforehand; having set questions, time slots, and streamlined structure to ensure people have the chance to contribute. As tutors are conscious that online learning could be chaotic, they are making an effort to bring some order. Following on from this, flipped learning has been introduced for some. Though many arts students might resent the hour-long Q&A sessions on top of usual lectures, they can’t deny that they are getting more (virtual) contact hours. Universities have also been forced to re-think forms of assessment. Could this be the chance to eliminate exams once and for all? It’s unlikely, but it could see a decrease in the amount of weight given to them, freeing students from the consuming stress and anxiety of two hours determining three months of work.
We should in no way be grateful to the pandemic for these positive changes. Online learning has been introduced in the worst circumstances imaginable, but it is not the idea that is at fault. Though there are valid questions to be asked about paying the same student fees for an online education, or about the preparedness of universities to take on such a mammoth transformation in teaching, they do not negate the obvious benefits of online teaching for many students. The main issue with online learning at the moment is that it is not a decision, people are (unavoidably) being subjected to it without any consultation. There are silver linings to Covid-19; they are dull and faded and they definitely do not obscure the deep, dark cloud… but they do exist. Online learning could be one of them, if universities choose to see this as an opportunity to learn lessons and improve on the system they had. As Professor Keith Topping of Dundee University has stated: “It would be a mistake to pivot back to the status quo without pausing to consider what benefits online and blended learning can bring in the long run.” With the dark cloud comes the rain, and maybe when it leaves we could be left with a clearer, more accessible, and more flexible system of higher education.
No – Sophia Brousset – 73%
I miss in-person classes. I miss awkwardly shuffling into lectures, waiting for my peers to raise their knees so I can get a seat in the middle. I miss furiously scribbling down notes desperately trying to get my pen to keep up with the lecturer’s voice. I miss the admittedly awkward small talk while waiting for a tutorial to start. There is no replacement for in-person learning. While online learning is the safer option, it cannot be a permanent replacement for the real thing. On top of the indisputable academic benefits of face-to-face learning, it also benefits our mental health by providing structure to our lives, allowing for face-to-face contact with others, and giving us time away from a screen.
Online courses seem to encourage negligence in classes. When doing virtual classes from home, whether prerecorded or not, it is all too appealing to let your classes jabber on in the background as you sit in your PJs and scroll through TikTok under the pretence of “getting work done.” As students are now able to hide behind the anonymity of a muted microphone and a switched off camera, lack of engagement with classes is far easier. When you no longer have to suffer through the agony of a tutor staring you down as you stumble to answer a question that was clearly contained in the assigned reading, it becomes a lot more inviting not to do said reading. In-person learning forces further engagement which undeniably results in better academic performance.
In addition to these academic benefits, face-to-face learning also benefits mental health. Call me crazy, but I have always appreciated the fact that many Schools within the University refuse to record lectures. Though I would never have admitted it while wearily walking to the Buchanan Lecture Theatre for a 9am, the risk of completely missing out on information had I skipped a lecture provided me with an essential sense of structure and routine in my life. I never realised how much I needed that sense of routine until COVID snatched it away from me.
I understand the need for pre-recorded lectures as a number of students remain in different time zones for COVID-related reasons. But the lack of even live-streamed lectures in some of my modules is frustrating. I want to be able to ask questions, I want to be forced to sit still for a consistent hour a few days a week, and I do not want to be able to let my mind wander in the name of the rewind button which glows so invitingly.
Although all three of those prerequisites can be met by online live streams, the benefits of in-person learning go beyond that. Routine, face-to-face contact, and, call me old-fashioned but, time away from a screen are all beneficial for our mental health. Being forced to wake up, put on real clothes, eat a proper breakfast, and get at least a few minutes of fresh air while on the walk to a class is far better for our wellbeing in the long run. Sitting in the same room or, if you are lucky, the same two rooms of your accommodation, wearing PJs all day is not healthy. Staring at a screen all day is bound to lead to a burning feeling in your eyes and an ache in your neck — I should know as I have had weary eyes and a tense trapezius for the past two hours! And, while I am most definitely an introvert, face-to-face learning feels essential to building a sense of community with my peers and gives many students, myself included, the extra push to engage in social interactions they would have otherwise shied away from.
I would like to clarify that I do not wish to rush back to in-person classes while it is still unsafe to do so. I agree with the regulations the University is taking to help stop the spread of the coronavirus and I would rather continue virtually until it is deemed safe to go back to my beloved face-to-face classes. But online learning cannot be equated to in-person teaching; this cannot and should not be the new normal of teaching.
I am nostalgic for learning the way I knew it 10 months ago. Although I recognize that it will not be safe to have in-person lectures any time soon, the gradual return to in-person teaching in smaller groups is a welcome change. In-person classes provide the sense of structure and of discipline that students require, undeniably helping both our academic and mental wellbeing.