It has been clear for several months now that start of the new academic year is going to be very different to any we’ve been through before. The Covid-19 pandemic means that there will be huge changes in all areas of academic life, but perhaps the most visible change will be in teaching, where ‘remote’ teaching online will much more common. Where face-to-face teaching is happening, it will have to be ‘socially distant’, in smaller groups and possibly with masks or other protective equipment.
However, one thing that is far from clear is the planned balance between these two modes. Unlike many North American universities, virtually no UK university has publicly announced that they will be ‘online only’ in Autumn. Instead, almost all of them have made vague announcements about ‘blended’, ‘hybrid’ or ‘mixed’ modes, which will include both online and face-to-face teaching in varying proportions.
In order to get a firmer sense of where we stand, I’ve done a quick informal survey of scholars based in 26 different UK history departments, asking them what proportion of teaching they are planning to conduct face-to-face. This included Oxford and Cambridge, five London universities, a bunch of provincial pre-1992 universities, and a smaller number of post-1992 institutions. I have not named any of the individuals or institutions because none of these plans have been publicly announced, and anonymity allowed them to give more candid answers.
Unsurprisingly, there were a wide range of answers, many of which cannot be easily quantified. Nevertheless, one common response stands out…
We don’t know yet!
In a sense, this is true of every institution. In tumultuous times like these, we simply don’t know what is going to happen over the next six weeks, so plans could change dramatically. However, it was notable that several respondents said specifically that they still had not had confirmation from their institutions about how they were expected to teach in Autumn.
At the very least, many respondents noted that the plans that had been made could not be confirmed yet because finding sufficient classroom space might be impossible. Timetabling classes is a difficult process at the best of times, and it is even more difficult when one needs to recalculate the capacity of every room. For example, one said: ‘Not entirely sure of the proportion though as a lot depends on size of groups/teaching spaces [and] capacity for social distancing.’ Another said: ‘At the moment the uni is “expecting” seminars to be face to face, though we’re working on fleshing out what this means.’ A third said: ‘[The university] is telling students that we will have a hybrid model (though it’s less clear to staff what this is supposed to mean in practice). We have been hearing (though nothing is confirmed yet to staff ??!!) that 20% f2f is the target.’ Many reported being told that they should be able to switch everything to online only if needed. All together at least a quarter of respondents said that their institutions had not yet specified how much they would be teaching face-to-face.
What this means in practice is many academics are currently expected to prepare for Autumn teaching without a clear idea of how they will be teaching. Academic workloads, which have been rising substantially in recent years, are now doubling for many as they are forced to prepare to teach the same content for both online and face-to-face.
Setting this uncertainty aside for a moment, the 26 responses seemed to fit into three broad categories…
1. Maximising Face-to-Face Teaching
Almost half of respondents (46%) said that their universities were planning to do most or all of their non-lecture teaching in person. This includes ‘small group’ seminars – often splitting larger classes into groups of about a dozen students – and one-to-one tutorials at Oxbridge. In some cases, because of the splitting up of larger groups, this means that teachers will actually have more face-to-face time than they would in a normal seminar module.
The exact proportion varies from place to place. Together it amounts to well over half of teaching time in upper-level modules and often a majority of time even in first-year modules. As one respondent said: ‘My institution currently plans to deliver a minimum of 2/3rds of all teaching face to face (lectures to be online, but then either 100% or 75% seminars f2f) and it is scaring me to death.’
In short, these institutions are planning to put on as much face-to-face teaching as they think they can practically manage. The reasons for this are less clear, but it is likely an attempt to get a ‘competitive advantage’ over other institutions that are doing less face-to-face on the assumption that new students want as much in-person teaching as possible, a decidedly questionable assumption.
2. Minimising Face-to-Face Teaching
The same proportion of respondents (46%) said that their universities were planning to offer some face-to-face time, but only a minimal amount. In most of these cases, the institution or department set a baseline proportion of contact time to be in-person that amounts to substantially less than half the normal teaching hours.
Again the balance varied considerably, but a couple of models seem quite common. Many respondents said they were told to plan for one hour per module per week as face-to-face, which would be about a quarter or a third of normal class time. In most of these cases, students could also opt-out and do online only if they wanted to. As one respondent said, ‘at school level we’d like to plan to make sure that each student who is able gets seen at least once a week’.
Although they are unlikely to say so explicitly, it seems to me that these institutions or departments are essentially planning to minimise face-to-face teaching while still doing enough to be able to claim they are offering it to every student that wants it and that students should be on campus throughout the term. In the words of one respondent: ‘think the f2f component is mostly to ensure students move into their campus accommodation’.
3. Zero Face-to-Face Teaching
Only two history departments are definitely planning for entirely online teaching in the Autumn term. Another seems likely to confirm this approach in the next few days. For them, all lectures, seminars and supervisions are designed to be online from week one.
The reasons for this are obvious: teaching face-to-face is very likely to be dangerous for students and staff, it risks spreading the virus more widely, and it is vulnerable to unexpected local or national lockdowns. It is perhaps not coincidental that these two institutions are both based in London, which was hit especially hard in the first wave and which necessitate even more commuting than provincial universities.
From my perspective, planning for zero face-to-face is by far the best option for staff and students. Online pedagogy may be more difficult and less satisfying in some ways, but it can work surprisingly well and it is much more likely to work if staff can focus on planning for this exclusively.
What to do…
With the much of sector facing major financial challenges and some institutions threatened with bankruptcy, I can understand why some university leaders are trying to offer substantial amounts of face-to-face teaching. However, given the current trajectory of the virus in the UK, disruption to this seems inevitable and the public health risks are massive. The reputational damage that might come with a major campus outbreak cannot be underestimated.
So prioritising income from tuition and student accommodation over the health and wellbeing of their students and staff may turn out to be a mistake even on its own terms. Even if these universities gain some short-term financial benefits, they risk wrecking their ‘brands’ and – more importantly – endangering the very people that make up the university itself.
This post is part of our ongoing ‘#SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online’ series – see the Table of Contents for more.