Of the many things the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted about higher education, two have become very apparent to me over the last couple of weeks:
- The notion of ‘university’ is still, for the most part, linked to a set of buildings.
- Language is largely embodied – we struggle to express how we interact online in a non deficit manner.
This thinking was sparked by my vexation at the “Coronavirus: Students to pay full tuition fees even if universities are shut” headline in a recent article in the Times. The full article is behind a paywall so I can’t comment on that. The headline, however, rather negates all the hard work of staff and students who are actively working together online. At my institution the majority of us are busier than ever and we have plenty of examples of attendance and engagement improving as compared to a ‘normal’ term.
The impression I’m getting, and is certainly true of the course I’m on, is that the students and staff are working harder with more going on. No way are we shut. We are more prepared working online than walking into a physical room.— Tony Pritchard (@tonyplcc) May 4, 2020
It’s not the same experience but it’s not ‘shut’
Clearly, for those students expecting campus-based activities the experience has become limited. My eldest son ‘took issue’ (he’s a first-year History and Politics student at Sheffield University) with my critical retweet of the Times story. His point was that even though his course is online he is missing out on student life, so for him university is ‘shut’ as a cultural experience (I also can’t go to the pub but I do understand what he means :). Those institutions that were not already operating online had quite a task just moving a viable curriculum online. The social, cultural and ‘ambient’ aspects of university don’t automatically appear as a side effect of curriculum online – they have to be designed in.
Similarly, many of the students at my institution rightly expected to be able to undertake all manner of tactile and embodied making and performance practices. While some of the learning around these practices can be undertaken online there is no digital equivalence for the tactile, for the feel of different materials or the experience of various spaces. It is also difficult to create those moments of serendipity and inspiration which come from wandering around a building which is full of creative ideas and work. I miss all of that, but I don’t think my university is ‘shut’.
The need for non-deficit language
We have to start finding better ways of talking about online teaching and learning which are not poor echos of physical paradigms if we are ever to break the ‘deficit-by-default’ conceptualisation of digital in education. This is going to be crucial as the Times headline suggests that students will not be willing to pay full fees while universities are thought of as ‘shut’. At a teaching focused university a significant portion of fees goes on paying teaching and support staff who will be working just as many hours online as they would have been in a normal term. If we can’t acknowledge this just because we aren’t in the same building then the whole sector is going to struggle during COVID-19 and beyond.