Universities beware: shifting classes online so quickly is a double-edged sword

When lockdown began, universities had to shut up shop like any other non-essential service. But something extraordinary happened: universities around the world went online almost overnight, showing remarkable determination to continue providing their students with lectures, seminars and tutorials.

But can this rapid shift to online teaching and learning actually work in the long term? Several problems have already emerged. Online teaching needs more than just the basics. Lecturers need access to a computer that supports teaching software and a reliable internet connection. Meanwhile, for students, even basic hardware and software are far from guaranteed in many homes, as families share equipment and internet providers struggle with increased traffic.

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There are also structural issues with internet privacy and security. Online teaching potentially exposes students to unreliable data protection laws in many countries. Neither freedom of speech nor privacy can be guaranteed for students’ ideas and personal data. This is no small matter for universities, given they are meant to be sites of free academic discussion and debate. Online universities can hardly be free when the internet itself is unfree.

The problem is exacerbated when universities rely on large corporates like Microsoft for online platforms such as Teams. Universities have little control over how online platforms are run and priced. In the overnight dash to online teaching, they have also shown little caution in both contributing to profit-making of corporates and compromising data on servers universities themselves do not control. Imagine students agreeing to give up their ideas and information to be stored at an unknown location and with little control over how they are used in years to come. Knowingly or unknowingly, universities may be contributing to surveillance capitalism.

The hardware and software for online teaching are not insurmountable issues, but they do require some deep reflection and open conversation. Should universities invest in home-grown open-source software? Can they provide foolproof platforms which do not compromise the security of students? Unfortunately, this conversation has been sidelined, even halted, by the rush to go online. But if online teaching is to continue beyond this pandemic, this conversation should be had.

There are also important questions to be answered about the best way to teach online. We need to question the assumed value in simply going “live” on camera. Recorded lectures simply replicate the passive learning environment of classrooms, and online seminars and tutorials fail to elicit meaningful student interaction.

Instead, let’s reimagine online teaching. For this, we may have to get away from the concept of contact hours in lectures, seminars and tutorials. Instead, there should be longer-term engagement from students through discussion forums or weblogs which allow sustained, freewheeling conversation.

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On my own human rights course, we allow students to develop arguments in turn, like chain novelists, over the course of several days. Tutors act as moderators and respond to students outside of class hours, in a way that gives them greater control of their own schedule and priorities. More time does not necessarily contribute to more screen time. This gives students more freedom to reflect and respond with deeper thinking and more sophisticated arguments than is possible in a classroom setting.

In fact, the greatest value of online learning can be in building a community. More importantly, it can diversify the student community by reaching out to learners who aren’t able to be part of a residential university environment, both locally and internationally. This includes mature students returning to university to learn new skills, people with disabilities, or those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Open and free higher education will be particularly important as we rebuild our society post-coronavirus pandemic. Cultivating healthy and curious minds may be no small contribution in a public health crisis. Let’s hope the shift to online gives universities a renewed sense of public purpose.

  • Shreya Atrey is associate professor in human rights law at the University of Oxford

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