Opinion: CU debate over online education

Education cannot be online-only

Have you heard the joke about the four politicians and university leaders from highly developed countries arguing in favour of online education, then one’s internet connection cut off?

Actually this isn’t a joke, but an episode from yesterday’s Cambridge Union debate, and an apt summary of the  “What does coronavirus mean for higher education?” panel.  From the four panellists, our favourite Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope, was the only one flagging up the question of inequality among students triggered by the transition to online education.

In Toope’s opinion, higher education cannot fully change after COVID-19 because “there isn’t a single model [of] what a university should look like”, and the palette of educational platforms is diverse. Where is Cambridge on this palette,  and why do students come here to study? He believes that students come partially for the research-led teaching, but also for benefiting from each other’s academic talent. Addressing the half-information leaked yesterday about next year’s online lectures he repeated that it is only mass lectures that are to be held online for the sake of safety, but supervisions and small group seminars will take place as usual; that college tutors and chaplains will continue to offer their pastoral help; and lab work is still set to take place – however, the social distancing guidelines are still under development.

The Vice-Chancellor also highlighted the strong community feeling of college life, which online education cannot replace. He referred to students building their colleges in Minecraft as proof of the need for such a community, and  also pointed out the greater mental health challenges arising from the remote term. The new situation means that the university has to “give more support to staff and upgrade technology”, concluded Toope. “We have to make sure we don’t induce social exclusion”, he warns. More importantly, “Covid-19 has shed light on educational inequalities”.  Toope predicts that differences in infrastructure and students’ access to the internet during the pandemic will be seen in the examination results. 

Second panellist Shirley M. Tilghman, President of Princeton University, supported Toope’s argument over the need for face to face interactions. “Students are not happy with online learning. Right now we are doing a poor job in online education”, she confessed. Tilghman wants to find the optimal balance between the use of IT and in-person education. 

The third panellist, Alex Tabarrok, who is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University, had a contrasting view. He is best known as a co-founder of Marginal Revolution University, a free online platform for the study of economics. He argues that the online university model is cheaper and better, purely because you can teach more students  at the same time. Tabarrok seemed to gloss over the quality-vs-quantity discussion.  Although he did raise a valid point about students with attention deficit disorders such as ADHD  who find it beneficial to be able to play back lectures, this is more in favour of recordings being offered to students rather than an online-only approach. 

He also used the analogy of music to support his argument: he said enjoying a perfect recording is better than listening to concerts. This doesn’t seem to be a very accurate metaphor;what we should be comparing is singing in a choir versus attempting to perform a four-part harmony via zoom.

David Willetts served as Minister of State for Universities and Science from 2010 to 2014. Yesterday on the panel he praised an imposing issue:  data-driven educational science. Dismissing everything which the discipline of Educational Science has been achieved so far, (as well as potential ethical questions about data usage) he pointed out the benefits of the big data that could be gained from monitoring online education. 

The last speaker, Justine Greening served as Secretary of State for Education under Theresa May. Having left Parliament, Greening now chairs the Social Mobility Pledge. She claimed that the job market requires different skills than academic knowledge. She said what is needed is resilience, motivation and team playing. In my view, she misunderstands what the academic skills are actually: to get accepted, to get funding, to get a first, to get your papers accepted you will need the skills she mentions. Research students aren’t only about citing facts from trivia books but work hard to earn their places on the academic ladder, and people who are more academically inclined do not permanently have their heads in the clouds and an inability to use a washing machine.  But on some level she is right: we must prepare for the job market after COVID-19 to be less ready for graduates than the university is for online education. 

Yesterday’s debate demonstrated that university leaders and politicians can still patronise us from their ivory towers without understanding our diverse realities. The last online term proves that online education is not a solution for students coming from deprived areas and for those who need a physical place away from home to grant them a calm and safe academic and life environment. So far students have had to move back to areas without adequate broadband and tiny rooms full of siblings. Mature students have been kicked out from colleges without any personal contact. In all these cases, online education is insufficient and access to the physical university is crucial.  This term has also highlighted that Cambridge’s success lies not in its mass lectures but in college-based interactions the loss of which is damaging to students academic and general wellbeing. It is comforting to know that the vice-chancellor, in theory, is aware of the problems arising from online education, and is on our side.