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A research project which asked University of Cambridge staff and students to describe their biggest hopes – and darkest fears – for post-pandemic higher education has found that many would support a permanent, but partial, shift to online learning.

Neither a fully online university, nor a complete return to face-to-face higher education, will be desirable in the post-COVID era

Simone Eringfeld

The finding comes from a study which began when the UK first went into lockdown in March 2020, forcing universities to move some teaching online. Ten months on, it suggests that academics and students would favour more ‘blended’ learning – a balance between virtual and face-to-face education – even when the pandemic is over.

Many are concerned, however, that some universities will be tempted to take courses fully online – a move they worry would kill off the traditional student experience of living and learning away from home. During the study, participants were asked to describe the most dystopian near-future for university teaching that they could imagine. In terms that sometimes read like a lost script from the science fiction series Black Mirror, they responded with visions of students ‘attending’ Cambridge through VR headsets, while courses are cut up and sold off in highly-marketable, bite-sized components.

Despite this, the research found that many staff and students regard the rapid adoption of new, online learning methods during the pandemic as an opportunity: to make universities more accessible, affordable, and to strengthen their relationships within wider society.

The study was carried out by Simone Eringfeld, a graduate student at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She said: “The project deliberately asked people to speculate about what might happen to university education, basing their answers on trends that we are already seeing in the sector today. At a time when universities are having to change very quickly, an exercise like this can give us a clearer picture of the kind of university we want to emerge from that transformation, as well as what we don’t want.”

Eringfeld began the study when a planned research project in refugee camps in Uganda was cancelled due to COVID-related travel restrictions. Confined to Cambridge, she decided to research the ‘post-coronial’ future of universities instead. This emerging field of academic enquiry is examining how the changes prompted by COVID-19 might offer an opportunity to re-evaluate what universities are for, to whom they belong and how they can become more inclusive.

She devised an action-research project built around a podcast, Cambridge Quaranchats, in which she interviewed academics, students and other staff, about life and work in Cambridge during the pandemic. She then carried out detailed, private interviews with another 10 staff and students. These participants were asked to listen to clips from the podcast and to imagine how online teaching might transform post-coronial higher education – for better, or worse.

Their biggest fear was that institutions might decide to move all teaching online. Some envisaged that universities might then seek to increase revenues by breaking up these online courses and selling individual lectures or classes to mass audiences in ‘bite-sized’ form. At its most bleak, the research suggests, online learning threatens to turn universities into ‘placeless’ institutions, where students no longer enjoy social activities, or encounter a healthy mix of people, cultures and ideas.

Asked to describe his not-too-distant dystopian vision, one student said: “Imagine virtual reality has gotten better and better. We can now host the entire experience online, so you wake up in the morning, put your headset on and go to lectures. You sort of simulate life. I think that’s the worst-case scenario… the University of Cambridge would be like a network or file. It wouldn’t even be a place anymore.”

Perhaps surprisingly after months of remote learning, however, all of the interviewees saw opportunities in moving at least some university education online. Many felt this would give academics and students greater flexibility in their working lives, reduce stress, and provide them with more time to explore other interests.

The study also suggests that this could conceivably help to make university more affordable. Institutions could, for instance, repackage courses so that students are not necessarily obliged to live on campus for as much of the year, thus reducing living costs.

A number of staff and students also viewed the wider availability of online learning as an opportunity to remodel university education in other, fundamental ways. Many, for example, favour making some streamed lectures widely available for free. And because online learning removes some infrastructural limitations of physical campuses, such as departmental divisions, participants also saw the potential to design new interdisciplinary courses; or to blend academic courses with vocational training by joining forces with further education colleges and other training bodies.

For some students, this represents an opportunity to ensure that higher education produces not just academically-accomplished graduates, but rounded citizens. “It’s not that I hope that we produce fewer Nobel Prize-winners,” one undergraduate told Eringfeld, “but I would hope that we would be more concerned with producing people… I would hope that the process of education makes people more human.”

Whether or not such ideas are realised, Eringfeld concludes that post-coronial universities will need to devise ways to combine virtual and face-to-face teaching safely and flexibly.

“Neither a fully online university, nor a complete return to face-to-face higher education, will be desirable in the post-COVID era,” she said. “People genuinely fear the possibility that we will lose the more embodied, communal aspects of being at university. At the same time, they realise that online teaching makes it more accessible. The challenge for post-coronial universities will be to encourage new forms of ‘belonging’ so that even with more blended learning, higher education remains a connected and meaningful experience.”

The research is published in Studies in Higher Education.

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