We spoke to Cambridge lecturers about their reactions to online lectures next year

Are they planning to make their lectures good enough to make them as viral as the leaked email? Only one way to find out.

This week’s news that lectures will be held online for the 2020-21 academic year was met with a wide range of responses from students. If a term of Zoom supervisions has taught us anything, it’s that our experience of online learning is often dependent on the lecturers delivering them. So, The Tab Cambridge has got in touch with a number of Cambridge lecturers to see what they think about the year of online learning that we are about to experience. 

Some lecturers agree with Cambridge’s decision

Many lecturers have supported the University’s decision, with sociology Professor Patrick Baert stating “I would say first of all that the University is making the right decision. It’s best for us to organise ourselves well in advance and ensure that the University can function as best as it can within the limits of the current situation.”

He argues it is essential to be able to adapt to and take advantage of  “the technologies at our disposal” and suggests ways in which online lectures can be made as interactive as possible: “If they are pre-recorded, then I would hope that they will be accompanied by a live q & a to allow for the element of dialogue. This is what we’ve done for the revision sessions in sociology, for instance” and points to the role of the supervision system in aiding this “where the element of dialogue is essential.”

Others want to “hear from students about what is working well and what not so well this term”

Dr Patrick Clibbens, who teaches the politics and history of South Asia and its diaspora, also supports the University’s early decision about lectures, pointing out that “[m]aking the decision about lectures now should help give teaching staff time to plan their courses as online teaching, perhaps using different formats that work better online.”

He seems to agree with Prof Baert that making the decision so soon allows the University to prepare for this new method of teaching better in advance. He also stresses the need to reflect on how online learning has worked this time: “We’re very aware that many students are facing very tough working situations. It would be really useful for me – and I’m sure for other staff – to hear from students about what is working well and what not so well this term, so we can learn from this for next year.”

Will we ever get to see this in person again? Who knows (Photo Credits: Amy Hornsby)

Some think the benefit of online lectures would be freeing up space for other activities

Nicolette Zeeman, an English lecturer, sees online lectures as being beneficial to assure social distancing for other types of teaching. She told the Tab Cambridge she believes that the main benefit of remote lectures “is that it would free up a lot of rooms and booking times for the other essential activities that we still hope will go ahead, with students actually present and face to face, albeit with social distancing: classes, seminars, participatory teaching, and, of course supervisions.

With more large rooms available, the University and the English Faculty very much hope that these activities will be able to go ahead, combined with keeping the necessary distance.” Dr. Zeeman also acknowledges that online lectures will aid those “who cannot attend in person, either because they are at risk or because they cannot travel to Cambridge (and this includes staff as well as students)” and calls for the need to be able to plan ways of making other classes “available online where necessary and if at all possible.”

Some believe it is an opportunity to modernise their teaching techniques

Other lecturers have also called for the use of innovation in the industry, with Professor Julian Allwood, from the engineering department, explaining that after reflection he was “both excited about [online lectures] and see[s] it as yet another wake-up call from the lockdown”.  He talks about the ways in which this could act as an opportunity for his department: “Rather than asking thoughtful, creative, motivated students to sit in silence in a lecture hall listening to one person talking, it now seems much more sensible to create a terrific film of each lecture – using the whole panoply of film-making opportunity to compress a 50-minute talk into 25 or 30 minutes.

Students can watch these in their own time and we can use our time together to reflect, challenge and discuss – whether in large lecture halls, or as more likely for next year, in small groups. I see this not as a one-year bandage, but a turning point beyond which we’ll look back wondering why on earth we didn’t do it before.” Whilst this is potentially something which could take a large amount of work, he doesn’t see this as unachievable, and tells the Cambridge Tab that he has already signed up to the Open University’s course on ‘How to make an online course’ and plans to spend his summer taking this challenge on.

I’m so ready to see awesome presentations instead of clumsy power points (Photo Credits: Cmglee, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Licence)

Some are worried about the furthering of an already existing disparity between different colleges (and universities)

Dr Nicholas Guyatt, a historian in North American history and fellow at Jesus college took to Twitter to share his thoughts on what online lectures meant for Higher education. He begins by acknowledging disparities between subjects, “science students will find it much harder to equip lab spaces for social distancing rules; and when they cancel lectures, they aren’t freeing up space that can be used for practicals”.

He goes on to highlight the impact of social distancing rules on revealing inequalities between colleges due to varying sizes of supervision rooms “some have Downton Abbey-style rooms; others offer the full broom-cupboard experience” and size of college facilities “there’s also the question of whether some colleges have more space and money to make social distancing work in their student accommodation”. 

Yet, he acknowledges the privilege the University of Cambridge has as an institution, compared to other Higher Education institutions, questioning: “Is it fair for the swankiest parts of the sector to open their campuses while poorer institutions and their students are forced into the all-online experience?” He argues that  “[t]he sector was already in crisis before this began: the pandemic has focused and deepened problems that were already debilitating” and calls for “immediate” government support to “recognize that the commodification of higher ed has left universities in a terrible position going into this pandemic; immediate govt [sic] support is needed, then we have to rethink market logic as we come out of this.”

Regardless of their opinion, there seems to be a common theme among all of the lecturers: They are thinking a lot about how to improve a very imperfect situation in order to make sure that all of us can benefit from lectures as much as possible. Could this be the perfect opportunity to improve this type of teaching for the better?