THE World University Rankings 2021: teaching in a post-Covid world

The switch to online has?hastened?the move to high-quality, internationally relevant blended teaching and interactive learning

September 2, 2020
Student doing online lessons at a computer
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The rapid switch to online teaching in the wake of Covid-19 was not ideal for universities, which have spent decades, even centuries, honing their in-person education techniques. However, as the dust settles and many prepare to welcome at least some students back to campus, institutions now have a chance to look ahead to the post-coronavirus world. Experts agree there will be no full return to teaching as it was before but, in some ways, this could be for the better.

The most immediate and obvious impact is that more teaching and learning will be done online. This is not just because many lockdown measures are still in place but because universities have been able to see the benefits of blended learning.

Graham Virgo, senior pro vice-chancellor for education at the University of Cambridge, says that his university is planning for the next academic year to include “recorded lectures and as much in-person teaching as possible”.

“But clearly, we are looking ahead longer term to what this means,” he adds. “Our planning is focusing on blended learning and hybrid learning as part of that.”

The university’s position is that its degrees will remain residential programmes, but that technology will play a bigger role. Although the technology has been there for a long time, “there has been a confidence issue and there’s a lot we need to do to facilitate that,” Virgo says.

“Previously there was a sense that there was a particular way of teaching and we did not need to go down the technology route. Now we've done it, it’s actually working quite well, so the blended component will be more significant,” he explains.

“The lecture is not dead; it’s got an important role, just not an exclusive one. We are reflecting on what the lecture should be doing in a post Covid-19 world and how we can enhance the lecture experience.”

Carl Wieman, a Nobel prizewinning physicist at Stanford University and a long-standing critic of the “chalk and talk” approach to teaching, says “the optimistic scenario is that online teaching makes the difference between good and bad teaching practices much more obvious” and therefore the forced switch to online will “result in more recognition, training, and adoption of good teaching practices”.

“Research shows that standard lectures are very ineffective in person, and they have a number of added disadvantages when being watched online. The deficiencies become more apparent,” he says.

In contrast, strong active learning practices, in which students complete tasks, get feedback and discuss topics in small groups, can translate well online if teaching is synchronous, he adds.

However, Wieman warns that there is evidence that any changes to universities’ teaching and learning strategies?are likely to be driven by financial considerations to do “whatever will bring in the most money for the least cost”.?For some institutions that will mean more online teaching, but probably of low quality; for others, it will mean selling an “all in-person experience”, he says.

Simone Buitendijk, vice-provost (education) at Imperial College London and incoming vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, agrees that the lockdown has shown that putting students in front of a 45-minute lecture – recorded or otherwise – is not necessarily the best way to learn.

The switch to online has given universities “a great opportunity to do things we really should have been doing already”, speeding up the move to “high-quality, hybrid, internationally relevant online teaching,” she says.?

The old-fashioned lecture will have to be?upgraded?and universities will move to more evidence-based learning, she predicts.

“In three to five years, if we do this well, we’ll have a very different way of looking at teaching, with more project work and co-created teaching,” says Buitendijk. ?

“There is so much possible in an online space that you can’t do in a lecture theatre. For example, now we can truly create an international classroom. This will be so important for our home students: the world is changing, and they need to know what’s out there.”

Working more closely with the Global South to bring the perspective of non-Western countries into their classrooms will mean students connect with different problems and different solutions, Buitendijk says, adding that teaching will also become more interdisciplinary.

Virgo agrees. “The coronavirus has shown us how a siloed response to education really doesn't work any more,” he says. “The research response to Covid-19 – mixing STEM with the humanities and social sciences – has created really exciting interactions that will inevitably filter through to course construction and syllabus design.”?

Inevitably, Covid-19 will be a topic of educational discussion for years to come, he adds. For example, Cambridge is in the process of launching a foundation year programme, using the coronavirus as a peg for different types of discussion between disciplines.?

Ian Holliday, vice-president of the University of Hong Kong, says that a lasting change will be the ability to collaborate beyond campus – a phenomenon usually more associated with research, rather than teaching.

“No university is so comprehensive that it covers all parts of all disciplines,” he says. Now, using online teaching, universities can partner with other institutions and provide students with the opportunity to benefit from a wider range of expertise, he adds.

Holliday’s institution has been online since the beginning of the year, following the political protests in Hong Kong and an earlier outbreak of the virus.

“We have been able to see that some subjects work really well online. Take languages, for example. The ability to really focus on the speaker’s mouth via video is really helpful,” he says.

The university also set up a dedicated support team for those experiencing technical difficulties and recruited computer science students as interns, which has given students useful work experience and enabled academics to easily reach out for help.

However, Holliday says that “some things are lost” in the switch to online. Students miss out on the experience of serendipitous meetings on campus, for example. Meanwhile, assessment, an important component in evaluating teaching and learning, has also been impacted, with cheating proving to be an issue.

However, Cambridge’s Virgo says that coronavirus has highlighted how assessment techniques need to change.

“Assessment at Cambridge has stuck to tradition for a very long time, centred on the three-hour written exam. But because of the pandemic we have had to shift dramatically, for example using a 24-hour take-home written exam, he says.

“Although that was initially done in haste, I have heard from a lot of academics that they will not go back to how it was done before. Again, it’s [about] confidence, but students also welcome different modes of assessment. We are still evaluating, but we have got some positive feedback.”

Virgo concludes that it is clear that teaching, learning and assessment “will look very different in the future”.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com


Teaching pillar

Rank in pillar

Position in World University Rankings

Institution

Country/region

Pillar score

1

3

Harvard University

United States

94.4

2

4

California Institute of Technology

United States

92.5

3

2

Stanford University

United States

92.2

4

8

Yale University

United States

91.9

5

1

University of Oxford

United Kingdom

91.3

6

5

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

United States

90.7

7

6

University of Cambridge

United Kingdom

90.3

8

23

Peking University

China

89.6

9

10

University of Chicago

United States

88.9

10

9

Princeton University

United States

88.8

11

=36

The University of Tokyo

Japan

87.9

12

=20

Tsinghua University

China

87.7

13

7

University of California, Berkeley

United States

85.8

14

13

University of Pennsylvania

United States

85.4

15

17

Columbia University

United States

85.1

16

15

University of California, Los Angeles

United States

82.5

17

11

Imperial College London

United Kingdom

82.3

18

12

Johns Hopkins University

United States

81.6

19

=20

Duke University

United States

80.7

20

14

ETH Zurich

Switzerland

80.4

21

=174

Lomonosov Moscow State University

Russian Federation

80.0

22

22

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

United States

79.0

23

19

Cornell University

United States

78.8

24

=54

Kyoto University

Japan

77.9

25

16

UCL

United Kingdom

76.6

26

26

New York University

United States

76.1

27

25

National University of Singapore

Singapore

75.9

28

18

University of Toronto

Canada

75.4

29

24

Northwestern University

United States

74.9

30

60

Seoul National University

South Korea

72.4

31

46

Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris

France

71.2

32

29

University of Washington

United States

69.8

33

32

LMU Munich

Germany

68.7

34

27

London School of Economics and Political Science

United Kingdom

68.5

35

49

University of Wisconsin-Madison

United States

68.2

36

44

University of Texas at Austin

United States

67.9

=37

42

Heidelberg University

Germany

67.5

=37

39

University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong

67.5

39

30

University of Edinburgh

United Kingdom

67.2

40

31

University of Melbourne

Australia

67.1

=41

=70

Fudan University

China

65.9

=41

=94

Zhejiang University

China

65.9

43

28

Carnegie Mellon University

United States

65.1

44

96

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)

South Korea

64.4

45

40

McGill University

Canada

64.2

46

=87

University of Science and Technology of China

China

64.0

47

43

école Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Switzerland

63.9

=48

53

University of Southern California

United States

63.8

=48

41

Technical University of Munich

Germany

63.8

50

=87

Sorbonne University

France

63.2

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