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Reflections: Will the economic consequences of COVID-19 change university teaching forever?

Professor John Rallison, a former Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at Cambridge, considers the long-term changes in university teaching wrought by the economic consequences of COVID-19

For me an unexpectedly happy consequence of the lockdown is it that I have spent time online each day giving a maths lesson to my seven- and nine-year-old grandchildren. Whether 30 years of teaching mathematics to undergraduates qualifies me for this task I cannot say, but all three of us have been enjoying the experience.

College Supervisions next term will be compelled to use similar technology. I feel sure that the short term expedients will be as good as can be put in place, but I am also led to wonder whether in the longer term we shall see a revolution in the provision of teaching across the University.

My stint as the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education coincided with the so-called ‘Year of the MOOC’ (Massive Open Online Course) some ten years ago. The evangelists of this idea, many of them Computer Scientists, anticipated that advances in internet technology would generate major disruption of Higher Education globally. Courses across all disciplines would be publicly available online free of charge and only formal qualifications, including degrees, would attract a fee. The question at the time was whether Cambridge University should become a leading player in the anticipated revolution.

Professor Rallison, Trinity Fellow and former Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education

The MOOC model is seductive. Anyone worldwide with a computer can access high-quality teaching materials. Clever software powered by robots can pinpoint some of their learning difficulties. The internet provides discussion forums for students with participation of a limited kind by course Supervisors. Initial evidence suggested that the public would sign up for courses in large numbers but were often reluctant to finish their course or to pay for a qualification at the end.

From a University perspective the costs were substantial. Providing online material to a high professional standard is expensive, especially in competition with many other providers selling their wares. In addition, online material once produced soon passes its sell-by date and there is reluctance to refresh it too often. Importantly too there is a branding problem: if a BA is cheaply available online would that undercut the much more expensive traditional student experience with residence in Cambridge required? For these reasons and others Cambridge decided at the time not to be an early adopter.

Several companies, most based in the US, now operate a MOOC model. Numbers of students enrolled on MOOC platforms are now said to exceed 100 million. Futurelearn, which operates under the aegis of the Open University, provides a platform on which many UK universities, including Cambridge, are represented. If the enforced idleness imposed by the lockdown continues, surely many more students will swell their ranks, and indeed those of the Open University, in my view another happy consequence for the provision of lifelong learning to the general public.

If the MOOC is here to stay, will recent events bring about the predicted disruption of traditional Higher Education? We shall surely find that the experiment this term in online Supervision is workable and that streamed lectures will suit individual student timetables and so will have advantages for some. Examination results will not suffer, so the Regulator will be happy.

On the other hand there are undeniable advantages of students living, eating, discussing, playing and working together. Those advantages are difficult to quantify and they are relatively expensive. I am concerned that the costs of our traditional system (multiplied across all UK Universities) may be viewed as unsustainable when the accounts of the present crisis are reckoned. Can we foresee a mixed resident/non-resident arrangement where undergraduates spend perhaps one of their years working from home, taking advantage of the technology for distance learning that is now available? The perceived success or otherwise of the special expedients for the coming term could well have a long term impact for the future – not as a direct consequence of the virus, but through the economic damage that it is causing.

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