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Is university online teaching an inferior form of learning?

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Many universities have moved teaching online because of the pandemic. Sadie Robinson explores whether this provides a worse quality of education for students
Issue 2727
Face to face teaching has been limited
Face to face teaching has been limited

Does online learning leave students short-changed?

As more and more virus-hit ­universities suspend face to face teaching, it can seem like students are getting a worse education.

But while there are clear ­drawbacks to learning online, the situation is more complicated.

Craig Brandist is a lecturer at Sheffield university, which has switched to online learning. “Online classes are generally a weak substitute for a ‘normal’ on-campus ­programme,” he told Socialist Worker.

“Seminar interactions are often stilted. The inadequacies of the broadband infrastructure constantly make themselves felt. More confident students find it even easier to ‘dominate’ class discussions, while the under-confident find it easier to hide away.

“The classroom dynamic is weakened.”


Learning is a collective process, but online learning can limit interactions between students. This places a more individualised burden on students.

A survey by the NUS students’ union carried out in July found that over a quarter of students were unable to access online learning during ­lockdown. Disabled and poorer ­students were the worst affected.

Middlesex University midwifery student Aqsa Rabbai said, “There was a lack of communication from the university and there wasn’t much support online. My classmates would often have technical difficulties.”

A move to permanent online ­learning would not be beneficial in the long run.

But some of the problems ­attributed to online learning, such as lack of interaction, apply to face to face teaching too. It’s hard for students to have personal contact with a teacher in a class of hundreds.

And there are positives to learning online.

“The ability to attend lectures by top specialists all over the world is a huge advantage,” said Craig. He added that it could expose workers and students to “innovate ways of teaching and new ideas”.

The main problem isn’t online learning in and of itself, but the level of resources put into it.

So learning online could increase accessibility for students who find it harder to attend physical lectures. But it could also harm accessibility if students don’t have the equipment or infrastructure needed to take part.

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Craig pointed out that the ­differences between online and face to face teaching “can be minimised with investment and support”.

“The Open University spent a long time transitioning to a successful and professional online programme,” he said.

“We can learn a lot from this. Why wasn’t the summer spent learning these lessons and ensuring the best possible education for students?”

Universities didn’t do this because they wanted to protect their incomes (see below).

Market policies have turned ­universities into businesses competing for “customers”—students—and fighting to maximise profitability.

In this situation, education bosses will always try and cut corners—whether education is delivered online or face to face.

Students and staff should unite to defend safety and the quality of education. “There is no conflict of ­interest between staff and students,” said Craig.

“The contradiction is between students and staff on one side, and the commercialised and financialised nature of the higher education system.”

Bosses focus on ‘income streams’ not students’ interests

The crisis sweeping universities was entirely predictable.

For months, the UCU union has warned that a mass return of students and staff to universities would send coronavirus cases soaring.

Since August, it has called for teaching to be online in all but exceptional circumstances, such as lab work.

The Sage group of scientists that advises the government agrees. But the Tories ignored its warnings—with dire consequences.

“Students are right to be angry because university senior managers ignored the science and mis-sold a near ‘normal’ educational experience,” Craig said.

“They could have invested in adequate systems and training for staff to ensure the online learning experience was as valuable as possible. Instead they worked to provide ways in which on-campus teaching could continue long enough to ensure students were legally committed to paying fees and accommodation expenses.

“The safety of staff, students and the local community was downgraded.”

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He said demanding on-campus teaching “leads to bullying of staff into performing tasks that are dangerous”.

And workers face an increased workload as they try to create online learning materials at short notice.

Craig said workers and students need to organise together to fight for a new vision of higher education “as a social good”.

“Staff need to support student demands for an end to fees and for living grants, as well as equality of access,” he said.

“Students need to support staff seeking reasonable workloads, good pay and funding for research.

“In a publicly funded education system aimed at the social benefits for society at large, online technologies could significantly enhance higher education,” he said.

“The problem, as ever, is that rather than prioritise the educational possibilities, university ‘leaders’ are focused solely on income streams.”

Resist for results

Resistance can push back reckless university bosses.

A threat to ballot for strikes by UCU members at Northumbria University forced bosses to move learning online on Wednesday of last week.

On the day that the move was announced, 619 cases of the virus among students were announced. Some 770 cases had been found the previous week.

UCU regional official Iain Owens said, “It should not have taken the threat of industrial action for Northumbria University to put the health and safety of its staff and students first.”

But as more UCU branches vote to support ballots over virus safety, Northumbria shows that organising resistance can get results.

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