As the coronavirus pandemic continues, so does universities’ reliance on online teaching, prompting complaints from students that they are not getting full value from tuition fees. Students who have returned to campus fear that their university experience as a whole is being diminished.
Manchester Metropolitan University has moved first-year teaching online as students self-isolate. The University and College Union has urged universities to teach online until Christmas, and MPs in Leeds have asked the University of Leeds to teach online.
A petition is circulating which calls on the UK government to authorise refunds for tuition fees. It states: “The quality of online lectures is not equal to face-to-face lectures. Students should not have to pay full tuition fees for online lectures, without experiencing university life.”
There is no doubt that student experience as a whole will not be the same if universities move entirely online. But we must not assume that online teaching is automatically inferior to face-to-face teaching. Universities can provide students with engaging and invaluable learning experiences online.
The question of whether online learning provides value for £9,000 a year tuition fees is not an easy one to answer, since each student will have a unique experience and value can only be assessed in the long term.
Nevertheless, universities and staff are putting a significant amount of investment – in terms of money, technology, expertise, effort and time – into online teaching. On the part of academics, the costs of online teaching have already exceeded those of face-to-face teaching since it requires a considerable amount of training and extra hours of work.
The overnight shift to online learning in spring 2020 led to frustration and students’ concerns over the quality of online learning in the 2020/21 academic year are understandable. But in preparation for the new academic year universities have invested in providing their staff with the skills needed for online teaching.
Working with a team of educational developers, I delivered an intensive course on online teaching at Lancaster University over the summer. Despite the extra workload, staff participation in the course was remarkably high. Participants were very serious about ensuring student success online and spent hours re-learning how to teach. All those staff hours add up – staff training for online teaching has been very costly.
Both universities and academics have realised that teaching online is not as simple as providing hour-long online lectures. For each course, online tutors need to think through an entire sequence of learning activities and carefully structure learner experiences around them – readings, lectures, discussions and assessments.
Each online learning activity takes time and energy to develop. Students may not be aware of how much effort has been put into a short video. As a lecturer who took part in my summer course said:
The ability to pre-record (and thus re-record) material has led me to strive for perfection. In a normal lecture, there are no opportunities to go back, but when I’m sat at my desk at home, the possibilities are endless. Obviously, any improvement is good for students, but it has come at a great cost to my time.
Besides, online teaching is a team endeavour, requiring diverse expertise. Universities have hired a huge number of digital learning specialists and learning designers.
This also requires more work to coordinate at a degree programme and department level. At a basic level, student workload across different modules needs to be managed, and live session schedules should not clash.
Unlike face-to-face activities restricted by time and space, online learning allows students to access course materials and engage with learning activities whenever they want. From private chats on Microsoft Teams to quick meetings on Zoom, online communication tools make one-on-one interaction easy and convenient. Students appreciate the flexible and personal elements of online learning.
But as students adapt to a new way of learning at a distance they also require more pastoral support from online tutors. All of this means that tutors often find themselves monitoring and supporting students’ learning all the time – and spending a lot more time teaching online than they would in a lecture theatre.
Value for money
The UK government responded to the petition requesting tuition fee refunds as follows: “Higher education providers must deliver high-quality courses. If students are unhappy, they should first complain to their provider, or the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education.”
This sort of response can establish a problematic understanding of the relationship between universities and students. Universities are educational providers, but not vendors of a product like Amazon or other retailers.
University education, whether online or face to face, is not a pre-made product. Universities are, without doubt, responsible for excellent student experiences, but students also actively shape and transform their own experience.
Tutors genuinely care for student success and strive for excellence in their teaching. Universities must put their best efforts into supporting their students and tutors. It is important to develop a relationship of trust between universities, tutors, and students, and for all to work together to make online learning a success.