Opinion: We need to move all non-essential teaching online, and we need to do it now

Being sick of Zoom is better than being sick from long Covid, just saying

Cambridge students are riled up. Facebook comments are declaring #NotmySU, people who ran for SU presidency six months ago are popping back into our lives like that ex that just won’t leave you alone and there’s more angry reacts than students self-isolating at Homerton. So, what scandal have Cambridge SU (rip CUSU, it’s catchier, but supposedly less effective predecessor) been caught up in *this* time? Expecting a repeat of last year’s claims of election-rigging, I was surprised to see merely a link to an open letter – every Cambridge campaign’s favourite source of activism. 

What’s more, the open letter wasn’t even calling for a boycott of Van of Life in favour of Gardies, for rowers to stop talking about their blisters or for freshers to stop wearing their school leavers’ hoodies – all of which represent important, contentious and somewhat polarising topics for Cambridge students. Alas, the open letter was merely calling for Cambridge students to push for online teaching where it was possible, and wouldn’t affect the quality of the learning. After all, what could be more anger-inducing than the SU attempting to protect the health of hundreds of vulnerable, high-risk staff and students in the midst of a pandemic?

This article is intended to make various clarifications about the contents of the face-to-face teaching pledge released…

Posted by Cambridge SU on Monday, 19 October 2020

Let’s not beat around the bush here: in normal times, most students would prefer face-to-face teaching. It gets us out of the house (read: tiny student room), helps you to socialise and meet friends on your course (ish), it can improve your learning experience and make it easier to communicate with lecturers or teachers (supposedly, personally I can’t think of anything worse than the lecturer asking an open question.) But as everyone and their nan keeps reminding us, these are not normal times and alas, Zoom uni is the way forward. 

“But 99 per cent of people our age who get coronavirus recover”

Humans are naturally self-centered, and everyone’s first instinct is to first question how this decision, if it went forward, would affect you personally but I’m begging you to have some awareness of others. Comments such as “Do they not understand? Students WANT all the in-person teaching we can get. How can the SU be so detached from the actual student body” are themselves detached from the realities of disabled students at Cambridge and beyond. 

A gentle reminder is needed here that the SU doesn’t just represent able-bodied students; it has a Disabled Students’ Officer for a reason, and just because Ben from Caius is fuming that the SU didn’t personally consult him, doesn’t mean they’re not acting in the best interests of students. The SU are acting on the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), the stated position of both University and College Union (UCU) and the National Union of Students (NUS) and the situation at the University of Cambridge itself to protect students – they haven’t just whipped this pledge out of thin air in a game of *who can be the most woke*. 

*You* might get Covid and think you’ll be fine (a huge assumption to make in itself!) but what about your supo partners, supervisors, household members or other people you’ve been in contact with who are considered high-risk and for whom Covid could be a death sentence. This isn’t something you can always know either: not only are not all disabilities or factors which make one high-risk visible, but we always joke in Cambridge about how everyone knows-someone-who-knows-someone here. If you thought this was bad for gossip spreading, wait until you hear about what it means for the transmission of Covid.

Moving teaching online can help protect vulnerable students and ensure equality of educational experiences. I won’t patronise you with reminders of the numbers of cases, hospitalisations and deaths even within Cambridge (spoiler alert: it’s not good) but we are in a pandemic, and to be quite frank I’d rather you sacrifice your in-person German-speaking class than vulnerable students sacrifice their lives. 

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Unexpected bonuses of online learning!

Even if you can’t see outside of your own vested interest, it’s clear that a move to online-teaching where possible this term is the best way to protect your own interests. In person-teaching puts you in closer contact with a greater number of students, often from different colleges, who you may not have come into contact with otherwise. I’m no scientist, but even I can tell you that this has important consequences for the R number and increasing the likelihood of you having to self-isolate for two weeks. Do you really want to isolate for a quarter of the term because your supervisor caught coronavirus off Becky from Emma, who you’ve never met in your life but was supervised an hour before you? 

“Online learning just isn’t the same”

it’s the pre-supo photoshoot to check the lighting for me.

Unpopular opinion: online learning just isn’t that bad. I can get from my bed to a supo in 10 minutes. My supervisors have been able to share helpful links in real-time, share maps and sources and the feedback on my essays is actually legible these days thanks to Calibri body size 11 font. What’s more, being able to blame poor connection (cheers Eduroam) provides the perfect excuse for extra thinking time whenever you’re asked a question that you have no idea about. 

At the end of the day, for lots of students this won’t make a huge amount of difference to your day-to-day life: the SU is recommending that essential face-to-face teaching, such as lab work, or courses with a practical element, continues, whilst most humanities students have less contact hours than fingers on their hands. Libraries are still open, the SU aren’t banning you from studying in coffee shops (to put it into perspective, they’re asking you nicely to sign an open letter) and many lecturers are even providing additional Q&A sessions to try and make their content as comprehensive as possible. 

Moreover, if you do end up self-isolating for two weeks at some point this term, having online teaching is going to make it easier for you to stay on top of work, being able to access Zoom seminars or online lectures, rather than having to miss content, or beg the person you spoke to for five minutes in Freshers’ Week last year to send you the notes. Likewise, should Cambridge be required to move into a higher tier of lockdown face-to-face teaching is likely to be further restricted, creating further levels of disruption, for both staff and students alike.

An unrivalled opportunity to not have to lose your dignity everytime you miss a lecture.

Even in the unlikely event that this doesn’t prove necessary, a move to online learning can hugely benefit disabled students by providing more accessible learning, from improved lecture recording technology to a higher number of resources available online. Granted, it’s disgraceful that it has taken a pandemic for these adjustments to be made, but it does open up opportunities for tuition to become more accessible and inclusive to all students, for which it’s necessary to stop treating online-learning is an inferior back-up. By making the move now, we can focus on improving the quality of online learning, reduce disruptions and hopefully help to reduce transmission so we can keep cases low and hopefully return to face-to-face teaching in the future. 

“I shouldn’t have to pay £9,250 a year for this”

And finally, for the change.org petition crew who are fuming at still paying £9,500 for a year of online learning, I hear you! Be angry that we were told to come back to Cambridge, under the guise of blended learning which is in actual fact a blend of Zoom, Teams and Google Meets. Be angry that we’re paying thousands of pounds a year in rent just to protect college and university income, at the expense of cutting many students off from their main support networks. No-one is denying that, in many ways, university students have been shafted this year. I just beg you to take the next step to condemn the marketisation of universities, which has led us to this situation where profit is being put over people – rather than some 22-year-old sabbatical officers who are just trying their best to prevent further outbreaks and protect students and staff.

A move to fully-online teaching for all non-essential learning offers us the possibility to reduce transmission, prevent future disruption and protect vulnerable students and hence the SU is right to be pushing this move. 

A full explanation of the reasoning behind the SU’s position can be found here. 

The University press office have been contacted for comment. 

Feature image credit: Author’s own

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