The inevitable move to online learning by the University of Edinburgh is undoubtably a necessary one after a rapidly changing coronavirus situation and fluctuating government guidance. The University of Edinburgh, ahead of the new academic year and after receiving government guidance, pledged to retain a level of normality via “hybrid teaching” for continuing students, guaranteeing the first year experience as an attractive option for incoming freshers.
Online learning and hybrid teaching is a fantastic opportunity for the University to actively change teaching styles to a new method in order to counteract rising student dissatisfaction in Edinburgh. According to a Times Higher Education survey, Edinburgh is ranked as 136th in the country in regards to student satisfaction, with overall course satisfaction at the 77 per cent mark. There is an obvious need for improvement as far as student satisfaction goes.
Nonetheless, after the first week of the semester, it has become obvious that the education direction has not changed drastically from the university’s foundation in 1582 despite being wholly online. The decision to be as accessible as possible by moving everything to online learning has ensured Edinburgh’s global network of students and staff all have equal opportunity to partake.
This has manifested itself for pre-honours classes as entirely asynchronous with pre-recorded lectures, discussion boards replacing live tutorial discussion. Honours classes have a level of “live” contact through seminar and lecture teaching, however, disappointingly, this has not been uniformed. Between schools, and even internally within schools on a course by course basis, there is a large disparity with who has live contact, with many honours students not having equal access to this.
There have been some positives to moving learning online with students reporting that the closed-caption option on lectures has been helpful and the asynchronous nature courses are taking has allowed students from different time zones to work through tasks at their own pace.
However, it would be naïve to suggest that all students are benefiting from this move. The University’s approach has drastically fallen short of the expectations many students had before coming to university. The “hybrid” approach is practically non-existent, a myth for many students that caused a great influx of students returning back to Edinburgh and new reports of surging coronavirus cases as a consequence.
However, instead of blaming irresponsible students, as the University has indicated in email communications this week, they should take accountability for their unclear miscommunications that face-to-face teaching would still be offered. Their communications have been particularly problematic for students who need clear communications to plan their activities, for example student workers and student careers. Especially amidst a global pandemic where the stresses of life are undoubtably amplified to include care giving roles for a higher proportion of students, the University has chiselled the expectation that all of its students are able to resiliently adapt at short notice.
By providing all learning online, higher management has not taken into consideration the impact on disabled or neurodiverse students. The National Teaching Laboratory has published data displaying average student retention rates, highlighting that only 5 per cent of students can retain information via lectures and only 10 per cent of students through reading. The University’s decision to replace “live” discussions with asynchronous discussion boards, only captures 10 per cent of student retention. It is a disappointing and damaging shift from the normal model of teaching offered in covid-free times whereby students could “demonstrate” (30 per cent retention rate), “discuss” (50 per cent retention rate) and “teach others” (95 per cent retention rate). This “one size fits all approach” that all students are able to learn through predominantly reading and writing is unfair to those with additional needs.
As there has been little uniformity across the University, the move to online learning has shown how dependent students are on the individual efforts and skill sets of staff. The recent University and College Union (UCU) strikes in Edinburgh have shown the pressure of high workload, casualised contracts and overall poor working conditions of its staff. These can only be exacerbated in the move to online education where the blurring lines of work and “home life” has caused extra hours of unpaid labour to adjust to new demands. For both staff and students alike the impact to online education is at massive cost.
The move to an online learning experience and hybrid teaching has really highlighted the fact the University’s approach has not taken into consideration those who are more disadvantaged, further highlighting the elitism rife in Edinburgh University. It can only be hoped at this point, that higher management can take the qualms of students with additional needs into consideration when deciding further future changes to educating.
Image: Online learning via Flickr