The past year and a half has been a learning experience for everyone in education. You might recall frustrating days battling your internet connection to log on to Teams classes. Similarly, the pandemic has been a baptism of fire for universities in how to deliver quality online learning.
While universities are planning to revert to their pre-pandemic state by autumn 2022, many are also thinking hard about the positive lessons that can be drawn from what’s happened.
The main shift is likely to be around how much online teaching you get. Most universities are planning to use a “blended model” that will combine the flexibility of online lectures with more interactive activities in-person, such as labs, seminars, workshops and Q&A sessions.
“The reference to some universities talking about ending face-to-face lectures doesn’t mean students won’t be attending any in-person classes; it means they’ll move away from large lectures of 200 students upwards. We’ll see a lot more of these sessions provided online because that can be far more effective,” explains Liz Barnes, the vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University who has led a review into online learning..
Some universities and courses are planning for more online learning than others, so when you’re choosing a university think about what might work for you. A broad rule of thumb is that practical courses have more face-to-face contact hours than academic degrees which involve lots of reading.
Ask yourself: are you planning to commute, and would you prefer to only be in for a couple of days per week, with the rest online? Or do you need in-person teaching to motivate you and to meet new people? Some universities are offering a variety of options to suit different learning styles and personal circumstances.
Most university websites aren’t able to supply the full details of how individual courses will be taught, so to find out the number of face-to-face contact hours you should ask the universities directly – and ideally visit an open day, says Barnes. She adds that the next year is still going to be a transition phase out of the pandemic, so things may well change in 2022.
If you’re concerned about whether online teaching means you’re getting worse value for money, this is actually not the case, assures Prof Allison Littlejohn, an academic at UCL specialising in learning technology.
“The time needed to prepare and produce online teaching materials is much higher than for on-campus lectures,” she says. Instead, most universities are shifting lectures online as they think it’s a better way for their students to learn.
If you’re still worried about surviving Zoom lectures, there are some strategies that can help.
“Don’t watch an entire, hour-long Zoom lecture. If the lecture is pre-recorded, combine watching it with active reflection on what you’re learning. If the lecture is live, find ways to interact with other students and with academics afterwards to discuss ideas and concepts,” recommends Littlejohn.
Interaction is an essential component of well-designed online learning, she says, so if it’s not included, ask your tutor to build in more time with individual students or in small groups, online or in person. You can also organise your own study groups to discuss what you’ve learned in a Zoom lecture or do problem-solving activities using new ideas and concepts.
One thing you might be worrying about is whether your disrupted school experience could hold you back at university.
“You might have had a poor experience with digital learning or feel less prepared for the academic challenges and independence university brings. So find out what a university is doing to help you around digital skills and how they support students,” recommends Ian Dunn, deputy vice-chancellor at Coventry University.
“Think about your last year of study during the Covid-19 pandemic and what you need from a learning and teaching perspective to thrive.”