As new lockdowns loom, is digital pedagogy ready?

The loss of international income makes the improvement of universities’ online offerings all the more urgent

August 20, 2020
Mouse in a lion’s mouth
Source: Alamy

If even New Zealand can’t fully control the coronavirus, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Last week’s reimposition of a lockdown on Auckland and the return of social distancing elsewhere in the island nation was a sharp reminder – as if we needed one – that, like a horror film baddie, Covid-19 will always find a way to surmount whatever makeshift barriers are placed in its path. And, amid widespread international scepticism about both the effectiveness and the safety of Russia’s Sputnik?V vaccine, approved by Vladimir Putin last week, the demon’s rampage looks as though it will endure for some time to come.

New Zealand had gone more than 100 days without a case of community transition. All social restrictions had been lifted, and, as Neil Quigley, vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato, explains in this week’s opinion pages, universities were physically reopened in June.

Not that university life had entirely returned to normal: Waikato’s campus is plastered with warnings about hygiene, and people must scan a QR code every time they enter or leave a room in case their movements need to be traced.

Quigley reports that various overseas institutions have been picking his brains as they prepare to reopen their own campuses. As our lead news story reveals, among the measures being considered by UK universities are extended teaching hours, mandatory masks in seminars and even Perspex screens to separate students from academics.

However, with Covid cases rising again in many countries, physical reopening may not always materialise as planned. And some observers suspect that all the planning for it is partly motivated by political pressure (especially in the US) and fears?of shrinking admissions, given students’ strong preference for physical teaching.

In an opinion piece published by Times Higher Education last week, Joseph Guarneri, a US college administrator, noted suspicions that, in reality, many universities?might?revert to online teaching once students have enrolled. His point is that such subterfuge (if that is what it is) would not be necessary if universities had made more concerted prior efforts to develop high-quality online programmes.

There has certainly been lots of criticism that while academics’ herculean efforts to move all their teaching online earlier this year were commendable, Zoom lecturing is not what works well online. So what does? That is the subject of our main feature this week, in which 13?academics give practical tips about how to approach online course planning, teaching, assessment and management. Times Higher Education is also working on a platform where faculty, staff and leaders can share best practice in digital teaching and learning from around the world (we’ll have more on this in the coming weeks).

It is already clear that if universities are to continue to have international students in the Covid era, they may well have to teach them online. New Zealand’s borders, for instance, remain all but closed, and, as Roger Smyth, the former head of tertiary education policy in the country’s Ministry of Education, wrote in THE last week, no international students have been permitted to enter this year.

And while plans are afoot to admit “high-value, low-risk” overseas students next year, no?one is clear how the country’s mandatory quarantine system – involving fenced-off hotels guarded by the police – can be expanded to cope with a mass arrival. This puts New Zealand in the odd position of having made itself more attractive to international students by adopting precisely the draconian anti-Covid measures that may well prevent its universities from recruiting any of them.

Even before the current re-lockdown, big falls in international admissions had been predicted; Quigley estimates upwards of 30?per cent, and he also foresees higher attrition if those existing international students forced to study online in their home countries lose hope of being able to complete their studies in New Zealand. Hence, “unless ministers are prepared to put in a lot of extra money”, universities will have to “reshape all aspects of our operations” and make “challenging changes”.

Is better digital pedagogy the answer to the international question? Perhaps. But whether it can be effectively implemented and, crucially, marketed in short order is open to question. In the meantime, at least the UK’s 18-year-olds, reeling from the fiascos over adjusted A-level and Scottish Higher results, have the consolation that there should be more spaces than usual for them in domestic universities.

paul.jump@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline:?Is the mouse ready to roar?

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