Facing online learning: our university cannot afford unhappy students

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Group size limit of six for socialising indoors or outdoors. Restaurants, pubs and clubs must shut at 10pm. Talk of a second lockdown.

Most of us knew that we would have hardly any face-to-face teaching for the foreseeable future, but the respite of a couple small seminars a week would have softened this blow. As of right now the new rules do not apply to education, but it remains unclear how our own university will respond to the new regulations. Some module convenors have declared that their modules will be taught entirely online and others promise to be doing their best to guarantee at least a few in-person sessions take place.

For the good of the university, as students we should be honest about how this digital form of learning will be received. Most of us had our first taste of cyber university at the end of the last academic year. I have yet to meet a single student who attended all their online lectures and seminars, or anyone who said they particularly enjoyed them or learned much through them. Maybe it’s the company I’m keeping, or maybe the strange, glitch-prone world of Zoom seminars doesn’t motivate consistent attendance. Given that consistent high attendance is rare enough in real seminars and lectures, the apathy towards attending virtual lessons that will likely result from digital learning should worry the university.

As our own Philip Cunliffe has argued in the Spectator, education is not something that can easily be done in the isolation of our own bedrooms, it’s a social process, conducted through relationships and conversations with academic peers and mentors. The social aspect of lectures and seminars— being able to have a chat with your peers, nervously ask if they’ve done the weeks reading, and have a laugh with the seminar leader—are the bread and butter of education. The vast majority of students lack the superhuman autodidactic skills it takes to survive a term (or a year, who knows) of contactless education. There is no shame in it, but any realistic strategy for higher education during a pandemic needs to accept this reality.

All this should worry the administration and staff as much as students. It is no secret that the standing of our university is in free fall: we have plummeted 30 places in The Guardian’s league tables and the university is 60 million pounds deep in debt. The university needs more students, and probably a bailout at some point, to combat this. Yet less students will be eager to apply to a university fallen from league table grace, whose student satisfaction ratings are bound to take another hit under a regime of online learning. This would then lead the university to generate less revenue, giving them further reason to continue their brutal redundancy plans to cut costs. It’s hard to see how we’ll come out of all this chaos a better uni. A mismanaged pandemic is the last thing the University of Kent needed.

With two confirmed coronavirus cases on campus, asking for a return to teaching as normal would be ridiculous. Yet, students can hardly be expected to be assessed on the same amount of information taught in highly impersonal online lessons as they would from normal lectures and seminars.

It seems to follow then that the only fair response is for the university to be much more lenient in its grading and examination of students across the board. Surely nobody can think it fair that your seminar performance mark should be determined by how interesting people find your Zoom presentation. A continuation of online exams for online-taught modules may also soften the inevitable grade slump that would come as a result of predominantly or entirely digitised learning, as it is easier to recall information in a context similar to that in which you learnt the information.

The university is caught between a rock and a hard place. I don’t claim to have an administrative blueprint for how all these issues should be solved, but we should all hope that the university does.

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