When 18-year-old Nia Bolland returns to Cambridge University in September, it will be a very different environment to the one she dreamed about in sixth-form.
Bolland, who’s just finished her first year of a human, social and political sciences degree, returned home for lockdown with her family in Herefordshire, where she’s been studying remotely. “At Cambridge we’re quite lucky, because we have ‘supervisions’, which are basically 60-90-minute-long lessons in very small groups of between one and five people,” she says. “This means that lectures being cancelled hasn’t mattered as much as it might at other unis.”
But for others, the lack of face-to-face contact has been challenging. “English literature and theatre are very opinionated studies and my classes are usually social and conversational,” says Millie Braund, a second-year English lit and theatre student at the University of Warwick. “I’ve found it difficult to adapt to online studying at home alone, especially as there are no wrong or right answers in my studies – it is all about contrasting opinions.”
Braund has had to rely on online resources for revision and assignments. “This was stressful at first and I found myself looking endlessly for sources,” she says, recommending Perlego, an online textbook service, and Prezi for presentations. “These have been an absolute lifesaver.”
For Bolland, who’s been helping with home-educating her younger siblings, developing a study routine was essential. “At uni I would work most of the day and usually relax or hang out with my friends in the evening. At home I would spend the morning teaching my sister, doing admin and doing any chores I needed to do, and then working in the afternoon and evening.”
Come September, Bolland has been told that she’ll be learning almost as normal but with lectures online – though some aspects of the experience will be very different. This is echoed by research from Universities UK, which found that 97% of unis will provide some in-person teaching at the start of term this year.
Despite these assurances, the unpredictability of the pandemic means that the picture is uncertain. “We just don’t have a crystal ball,” says Prof Allison Littlejohn, director of the Knowledge Lab at UCL’s Institute of Education. “But the number-one priority for most is going to be the safety of staff and students.”
Most unis are likely to have online teaching with an element of on-campus work, described as a blended learning approach, she predicts. “Precisely what that will look like will depend on whether there is a second wave and to what extent the rules will be relaxed in the UK,” she says.
She says that unis have done a tremendous amount of work in recent months to shift courses online. The challenge isn’t about replicating face-to-face teaching online but making sure teachers understand how online learning is different. “Online learning can be incredible, but to design learning properly takes expertise.”
One thing we do know is that students won’t be heading into packed lecture theatres any time soon. “Unis are naturally cautious about what they’re promising and most are planning for a year of online teaching,” says Littlejohn. “Face-to-face lessons will be much smaller, but most courses will have some opportunities to meet the lecturer, even if it means interacting in a different way.”
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