The Ivory Tower Goes Virtual

Jonathan Powles, Vice-Principal and PVC Learning, Teaching and Students, University of the West of Scotland

“Never let a good crisis go to waste”.  This saying is attributed (probably apocryphally) to Winston Churchill about the formation of the United Nations at the end of World War II, and has become a maxim in the leadership of disruptive change.

However, higher education seems about to do just that.  The radical changes to the way in which universities have delivered education during the pandemic have given us the opportunity, and the hard evidence, to bust some pervasive myths about learning, online learning and learning technology.  But the sector – including many in university management, Government, and the media - seems determined to ignore what should be self-evident to those who have watched university teachers teach and students learn online over the past eighteen months, and continue to perpetuate these myths.

Myth number one: teaching online is cheap and easy.  We have had evidence for years that developing high-quality online learning is complex and labour-intensive.  A 2009 study by Kapp and DeFilice found that developing one hour of quality, interactive online learning took between 49 and 89 hours, and that as the tools and environments were becoming more sophisticated, these numbers were increasing not decreasing.  During the pandemic, academics experienced at scale the challenges of creating high-quality online learning, with many understandably admitting defeat and opting for the educational desolation of the Zoom lecture.  Equally understandably, students have demanded fee reductions over “the poor quality of the online delivery of their degrees”.  Note that many have not been objecting to online delivery per se – many have responded positively to the flexibilities afforded by online learning – but to the quality of the support and interaction they have received.  The pandemic should have taught universities that if they want to do online learning, they need to do it well.

Myth number two: online learning is intrinsically less effective, depersonalised and anti-social.  It is currently fashionable to critique social media: to blame platforms like Facebook and Twitter for the rise of populist politics, for increase in youth suicide and self-harming behaviours, for the spread of mass disinformation about climate change and vaccination.  And it is true that the power of these platforms to drive social and political change and create and destroy hierarchies of connection and control is profound, even though not always negative: Facebook has been an invaluable social safety net during lockdown, enabling friends and families to remain connected; climate activists like Greta Thunberg would not exist without Twitter; and we would know much less about the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan without these media.  But the ubiquity and social power of these online tools is unquestionable across all generations and regions.  What is perplexing is that despite the existence of these tools and the model for engagement they provide, education by and large has not sought to engage learners and teachers in this socially interactive way.  With notable exceptions such as the newcomer Aula, virtual learning environments prioritise the transmission of knowledge rather than the engagement of learners in a social and transformative experience.  There is at least a prima facie case that platforms like TikTok might have something to offer the future of the VLE; but one simply has to imagine putting that proposition to a typical University Senate to comprehend the gulf between technologies for user and learner engagement inside and outside the ivory tower.  The pandemic should have taught us that the main reason we need learning technology is to connect people together, not give academics a new whizz-bang platform for content delivery.

Myth number three: students come to campus to learn.  For decades, the pattern of student learning at UK universities has remained consistent.  Most full-time students are expected to attend classes for around 9-12 hours per week during term time.  Fully 75% of their study time is self-directed.  Whether in the library, at home, or (increasingly) at work, the majority of students’ studyis conducted where and when they choose.  In this sense, all students are online students: studies (such as this recent paper) show a strong correlation between a student’s quantum of VLE activity and their final grade, even at on-campus “bricks and mortar” universities.   Since the rise of the VLE, we have been able to measure when students log on to study – with the peak usage of the VLE most often being in the evening.  This is consistent with a neurological study from the University of Nevada that found the most effective learning time for students was 7-8 pm.  All these (pre-pandemic) data clearly point to the fact that university students don’t do the majority of their learning in the classroom.

So why do they come to campus?  Again, the pandemic has given us the answer very clearly, if we choose to listen.  When forced into online learning in 2020, students were consistent in multiple surveys about what they missed.  They reported much higher levels of loneliness.  They missed peers, friends, halls, clubs and teams.This Pearson study highlighted their felt absence of hands-on learning and placements, industry-relevant learning and the lack of direct feedback and support from lecturers which builds confidence and autonomy.  In other words, the experience of the pandemic drove home very clearly what we already knew from previous research are the crucial characteristics of a successful student’s experience of university: a sense of belonging, emotional connection, efficacy, and well-being.

Students don’t come to campus primarily to learn.  They come to belong; to feel part of a community, and to feel supported.  And that is what leads to successful learning.   If the pandemic has taught us anything, it should have taught us that the campus is just another technology, another learning environment.  And whether physical or virtual, our campuses and spaces need above all to finally shed their ivory towers and be welcoming, connected and empowering for all. 

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