Thoughts on six months of further eduction: Covid, distance learning and degree supply

A few months ago the taught portion of my master’s came to an end. This felt like a good moment to reflect on my experience as a student. What’s changed since I did my undergrad in 2003? How I was impacted back Covid? And what that might mean for students and universities in the future?

Travel

The lack of travel required by an entirely online course has been a huge advantage for me. For context, I look after my son one day a week giving me four days for the course. Most taught programmes at King’s consist of three modules per term (the final term is for research) and each of those modules is formed of a weekly one hour lecture and one hour seminar. The Strand campus is about 45 minutes from my house which means I’ve saved at least an hour and a half each day commuting – more when you factor in moving between rooms and chatting with other students and the teaching staff.

Reading

Reading is the area of academic life most different from when I did my undergraduate degree. Many academic journals were online back in 2003, but renting out books was slow and tiresome. You’d see students dashing for the library to get out one of the four copies of a core text, and then sit on them for an entire term. Today, most are available to rent digitally and for those that aren’t, you can usually purchase the e-book or resort to piracy. Getting to the library during Covid has been challenging for obvious reasons, but even in “normal times” the digitisation of reading material would have meant I was unlikely to visit that often. And, more to the point, it has made a core part of the academic experience significantly more accessible.

Lectures

The format of lectures during my undergrad was pretty dull. A lecturer speaks for an hour and students furiously note-take hoping that they got everything down. There might have been a few questions, but they were limited due to time constraints. From my understanding master’s lectures are more participatory, but still suffer from time constraints and the rigidity of everyone being at a time and place to experience something that could be easily delivered in an asynchronous fashion.

Irrespective of Covid, pre-recorded lectures are big leap forward. I can chose to watch the content when I like; I can pause and rewind to ensure I have understood the points being made; I have enough time to make notes; and I can access automated transcripts to search through at a later date. I have also been prone to listening to much of a lecture at 1.5x speed. In fact, there are lecturers at King’s whose voices I only recognise at this pace!

In my experience lectures aren’t dynamic teaching environments. They are about the successful transfer of knowledge from lecturer to the student. A pre-recorded lecture is, in my opinion, a much better vehicle for this. And, should a student have a question about the content, there should be fora for them to do this – more on that later.

Seminars

Seminars by comparison should be dynamic, collaborative, discursive and reflexive learning environments. They are the polar opposite of lectures. Here the quality of experience I’ve had has been sub-par. For me, video conferencing cannot replicate the experience of being in a room together debating an interesting topic. Technical hurdles remain: slow connections; delayed sounded; distorted video, etc. What’s more the technology affords people the opportunity to coast, or, for those lacking in confidence, the ability to just hide behind their avatar with the mic off.

New social norms will establish themselves. For example, I can foresee many universities mandating video be turned on with an optional background to protect a student’s privacy. Similarly, technology should make the audio visual experience better. But this will take time, and it’s likely be a case of good enough rather than as good or better. Personally, I am skeptical that we will ever create a learning environment as effective as a group of people sitting around together exchanging ideas.

Social life

I am not best placed to judge the quality of social opportunities while taking part in my master’s programme. While meeting new people is always nice, as a 36 year old with a young family it was much lower on my list of priorities. Judging by the comments from others on my course, and from the union emails I received, there was a valiant but ultimately failed attempt to create opportunities for students to meet.

The extent to which technology can fill this void will come down to one’s expectation. For those on my course looking for the “traditional” university experience I think the tools available today are laughable substitutes. However, for someone who has signed up for a distance learning experience, an online club centred around an interest may prove quite enjoyable.

“Distance Learning”

Considering the social aspect of university brings me the next topic quite nicely. Covid has blurred the boundary between distance and on-site learning. Take King’s by way of example. King’s advertises 11 online master’s course on their website and yet, right now, many of 256 taught on-site master’s programmes they offer are being facilitated online to some extent. Those that don’t require lab access (such as mine) are likely to be fully online.

There is a good chance I wouldn’t have enrolled in a master’s if I’d have been required to attend everything in person. I simply wouldn’t have had the time for the on-site programmes, and the range of distance learning courses to choose from is dramatically smaller.

It feels inevitable to me that universities will begin offering a wider range of programmes to distance learners. The past 18 months has proven that they can do it, so as long as British universities continue to over index relative to their size in global rankings, the financial motivation to do so will be there as well. 1

I can envisage a hybrid offering where all students access the same lecture content, i.e. pre-recorded with a student/teaching forum for Q&A. On-site learners get access to the campus facilities and attend seminars in person, while distance learners all attend video conferencing seminars and have different, if not zero, campus access rights.

Cost

One of the consistent gripes amongst my course mates is that we are paying the same prices for our course as someone who attended back in 2018/19. They got the full King’s experience, we are getting something far from that. I am happy to accept that this will regarded as a quirk of history, but, should universities adopt a hybrid model similar to the one I’ve outlined above some reduction in cost will need to follow.

Over supply…

All universities are elitist to some extent. They deliberately balance (although I am guessing it is more art than science) the supply of degrees in order to retain their status and the additional income that it generates. If technology enables massive lecture participation. If seminars no longer require physical space to attend. If reading has been digitised. Widening participation by increasing the number of distance learning programmes quickly follows. In other words, you can detach King’s the brand from King’s the physical space.

Maybe this is something universities could have always done. Maybe they have long hidden behind their physical campuses as a way of keeping people out. But now you’ve proven that some form of heightened accessibility is possible, the tough question to answer is: why would you be happy to return to the way things were?


1. The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that British universities are facing an of an income gap of £11B. £2.8B of that is attributed to a fall in international student enrolment brought on by the pandemic. A cursory look at a range of international university ranking systems shows British institutions are well placed.

Daniel Bower

Blogging about platform regulation: algorithms, interoperability, kill zones as well as other bits and bobs. Read about my research, or read more about me.