by Poppy Coburn
Wednesday, 7
July 2021
Reaction
16:15

Zoom lectures are destroying the university experience

Online learning should not become a permanent part of higher education
by Poppy Coburn
Students have spent the pandemic isolating in their dorms. Credit: Getty

Never let a good crisis go to waste. This has certainly been the philosophy of certain forward-thinking university administrators this week. The University of Manchester, currently ranked as the 13th best in the country, unveiled plans to keep lectures permanently online — with no reduction in tuition fees. As a result of this policy, students affected by the coronavirus pandemic will face their third year without in person teaching, and still be expected to pay out an eye-watering £9,250 in tuition fees per year.

For a generation that already spends a massive proportion of our time staring at screens, the news that yet another in-person aspect of our life is being cut back on is disheartening. Manchester students responded negatively, with 89% opposing the University’s decision, citing the mental distress they felt at the prospect of less face-to-face interaction.

Online learning was unpopular even when it was necessary: student satisfaction plummeted during the pandemic, with 44% saying their course was poor value for money in 2020, up from 29% the year prior. Unsurprisingly, the majority of complaints centred around a lack of in-person contact, in regards to both teaching staff and other students. 

Of course, while the restrictions were unpleasant, students also understood the necessity of social distancing procedures — with the underlying assumption being that, once the pandemic had run its course, life would return to normal. Without the Covid crisis, universities like Manchester will struggle to justify why they are continuing a programme of online learning without students jumping to the obvious conclusion — they wish to improve their profit margins.

And now, for this pandemic cohort of students, this sense of displacement has been artificially extended. After all, how can you develop the important skills universities like Manchester claim to value while stuck in a tiny dorm room, zoning out during your fifth online class of the week?

That is why Manchester’s decision has provoked such an outrage. We all know the quality of education is shoddy, but it’s ‘The Experience’ — interacting with new people, trailing round over-priced and under-whelming clubs, and moving into a grotty student house — that draws young people in. Once the clubs and bars were shut and you’re left confined in your room, a large chunk of students (myself included) came to realise that we didn’t actually like our degrees – at least, we certainly didn’t like ‘blended learning’.

In the long run, we may see the move to online learning as a positive thing, as students come to realise that they’re paying so much for so little. But the real tragedy will be the loss of everything that comes with it: independence, freedom, and excitement — the sort of feelings you’ll rarely experience during a Zoom lecture. Now that online, remote learning seems to be here to stay, future generations will lose out of this last rite of adulthood available to us.

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  • I spent many happy years dossing around at Uni at the state’s expense in the 80s (Undergrad, then a couple of Postgrads, the latter as it happens at Manchester Uni, to be precise the now subsumed UMIST bit of it), so this will undoubtedly sound like some hypocritical old boomer who had a whale of a time when the going was good, and is now pontificating to youngsters in much more difficult circumstances. So fair enough if you don’t want to give me a hearing – the young should in all honesty *never* listen to their elders if at all they can avoid it.
    I think Poppy is a very fine writer, but I cannot agree that online learning should not become a permanent part of higher education. Quite apart from anything I very much doubt the direction of travel in higher education is a choice, or about as much of one as King Canute when holding back the sea. But even if it was a choice, look at this dispassionately for a moment. ‘The Experience’ is real but learning and ‘The Experience’ are two different and unrelated things thrown together by historical happenchance. If you take actual academic learning out of it, then you would be hard put to justify that ‘The Experience’ is nowadays anything other than very expensive socialisation. And the learning academic part of University (and socialisation undoubtedly benefits that learning in many but not all circumstances), is actually relatively poor in delivering what it is meant to to students, notwithstanding the line you have been sold by the higher education industry. And industry is what it has become, so your first reaction here should be, am I getting the learning I need here, and at good value, or is my resistance just instinctive because I might just discover I was taken for a ride by that industry.
    My view is that online and other types of learning should be embraced fully, and refined till they provide much better actual learning, all the while driving the costs of that learning down to almost nothing. At the same time, look to other means and mechanisms to solve the socialisation needs of students as a separate thing. For one thing you may find you have better control over that bit as well, than the hit-and-miss random walk you will otherwise get, of peers, teachers and places.

  • One of the greatest crimes has been Institutionalizing Student Debt.

    This has wrecked the family as how to go out into the world and form families with such a ball and chain. How can one afford house and children? The bright, young, people forming families has always been the absolutely most important aspect of society, put off by yet another nail in the Marriage coffin.
    Then how can one think young people with no experience of the world, or economics of making a living, can make such a life changing decision as to Debt/Degree? They cannot unless it is pure cost analyst of which degree pays best, fastest. Every other choice takes more experience than a 18 year old has.
    To set out the young with this burden is absolutely insane, they need to be getting on with life, not restrained in such a way – of every kind of government spending I would believe Student assistance, mostly debt free, would be the best.

    THEN is the simple fact that University prices will rise to whatever level of debt a person may take on. In USA this caused HUGE tuition Inflation! The Gov backs student loans, the Universities prices rise to what ever amount the gov will provide – BUT then the student is stuck with that debt! Insane. Universities are insanely over priced from this, and so young lives held back, and society harmed very greatly. The young ARE what society depends on, and setting them back at the start of their lives on the economy is Wrong.
    Fair debt is OK to force students to make wiser choices and be frugal, with lots of grants for ones without support, but the cost levels seen in USA? Terrible. Even UK is way too high.

    But then soon on-line University will be almost free as some huge programs are set up, but as the writer says, this is not the same as the personal education experience.

  • That’s a shame. I’m impressed! Far more useful and interesting than most degrees.

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