Thursday, May 21, 2020

Cambridge University Cancels Lectures Until 2021

Chapel of King's College CambridgeThe University of Cambridge (UK) has suspended mass face to face lectures until the northern summer in 2021. Small group teaching will continue in person. I suggest this is a prudent move, as mass lectures are likely to be the highest risk educational activity for COVID-19, as well as the least useful form of education. Lectures are easy to replace with video, and research shows the videos are just as useful in terms of student learning.

In 2015 I was asked by the Office of Scholarly Communication at University of Cambridge to talk to staff about how to teach students online. Dr Danny Kingsley, then Head of the Office of Scholarly Communication took some notes. At the time, the University of Cambridge was using the same Australian developed Moodle learning management system, as I used at the ANU. So Cambridge had the technology to provide online learning, if not the training or motivation to use it. 

There were some technical deficiencies: I has assumed that Cambridge lecture theaters would be equipped for video recording, as is common in Australia. But one bemused local pointed out that some of the buildings did not have indoor plumbing, let alone video. However, that is a problem easily solved. I assume that with the COVID-19 lock-down, staff now have been equipped with laptops and web cameras, adequate for recording lectures in a theater, as well as at home. 

A bigger problem than technology is teacher training, and the motivation for teaching staff to undertake it. As I was explaining at how to support students online at Cambridge , I noticed part of the audience nodding. These were teachers from a nearby polytechnic. To them e-learning was routine, as it was essential to an institution which had to provide education as cost-effectively as possible. In contrast, a research university such as Cambridge, has a business model built on research output. Teaching is important, but just part of what they do. 

For the last few years I have been considering how to the problem of improving the quality of teaching at research universities. I suggest it requires making teaching part of the syllabus for students who wish to tutor, and go on to a career in academia. This needs to be done before the student graduates, and becomes too important to be told to do teacher training. ;-)

Cambridge University does not appear to be alone with students asking for a refund, when they found themselves studying online, rather than in the hallowed halls. However, it is the small group teaching, which will continue, where the magic of Oxbridge is supposed to happen. Australian universities are also likely to first return to small group teaching first, with large lectures much later, if ever.

Even with large classes, there are ways, face to face or online, for students to get to know each other. One commonly used icebreaker is to have students form small groups to find out about each other. They then introduce each other to the whole class. This is one of the techniques which university teachers are routinely trained to use.

For those with good social skills, this can seem a very trivial and artificial. However, I was once enrolled in a course, face to face, where I never met anyone. I went to the lectures, listened to the lecturer, and went home. There was no get-to-know-you: the lecturer lectured and we were supposed to just listen, no questions, no discussion.

Icebreakers can be done online, where video conference system puts participants into small groups for a set period. Online text forums can also be used. This was done last weekend for the ANZDF logistics hackerthon, where teams were formed using Slack.

It will be interesting to see to what extent such icebreaker exercises can be held face to face, while maintaining social distancing. The Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN) had very successful First Wednesday Connect events with hundreds of people crammed in. These events have moved online. But when they can again be held in person will it work, if everyone has to keep their distance in a mostly empty room?

On my last visit to Cambridge I also dropped in to the business faculty (where the MBAs are) and talked to the equivalent of CBRIN. One insight was that most students do not participate in these activities if they are not required to. They tend to turn up shortly before they graduate, when they realize they might need to network to get a job.

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