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Why should students pay university fees if all lectures are online?

University lectures for large groups are unlikely to be possible in the next academic year. Students should be asking whether the alternative educational model being proposed will be worse, the same or even better than what has been traditionally offered in higher education.

Because of social distancing requirements, universities are having to consider the viability of large group lectures. Cambridge and Manchester were the first to announce the replacement of face-to-face lectures by online substitutes for the next academic year, with many others expected to follow. Students may be wondering about the implications for the value of their degrees.

The iconic status of the large group, face-to-face lecture in university teaching seems to have shifted attention away from the overall package of learning opportunities on offer towards the mourning of this much-revered component of higher education. But it is important to recognise that face-to-face lectures are just one of a range of teaching methods in use across universities. Other teaching methods include tutorials, seminars, labs, presentations, demonstrations, exercise classes, online classes and other sessions, so that the proposed changes might be seen as more of a shift in emphasis than a change of substance.

The question students should be asking is not whether online lectures are a match for face-to-face lectures, but whether the proposed educational model as a whole will be worse, the same or even better than at present.

Aren’t lectures the irreplaceable core of higher education?

Were we not in a global pandemic, the replacement of lectures by other technologies may have seemed part of a long-running historical development of transforming education towards active student-centred approaches. An early critique used evidence on retention and recall to suggest that the educational value of lectures was low compared with tutorial discussions or active learning methods (Donald Bligh’s 1971 book What’s the Use of Lectures). More recent studies confirm these findings (Michel et al, 2009; Hackathorn et al, 2011).

It is certainly true that technological developments (such as polling software and in-class response systems) have encouraged more interactivity in lectures (Elliott, 2003), with these innovations found to have small but significant impacts on cognitive learning outcomes (Hunsu et al, 2016).

But technology has also rendered the more ‘transmission-oriented’ parts of lectures largely substitutable by technological developments in recorded media. Indeed, as universities adopted lecture recording capabilities for students, they began to report significant drops in attendance at live lectures. Increasing numbers of students seemed to be revealing a preference to receive the transmission-oriented parts of their education in forms other than face-to-face lectures.

Early research found little impact of lecture capture technology on attendance. But more recent evidence finds that within a single university, attendance is significantly lower when lectures are due to be recorded than if they are not; but these effects vary across subjects with larger effects in the arts and social sciences (Morris et al, 2019). In fact, the results may over-estimate voluntary lecture attendance because some universities monitor attendance to keep numbers up.

To what extent is this reduction in the centrality of the live lecture detrimental to higher education? The evidence suggests that there are many potential advantages to alternative modes of delivering lecture material. Students often productively use recordings to revisit difficult parts of a lecture or to pause the recording for thinking and reflection (Davis et al, 2009; Larkin, 2010).

Further, the ability to pause and replay recordings may have increased accessibility for students whose first language may not be the same as that of their instructor. It may also have reduced anxiety for students with disabilities (Dommett et al, 2019). There is some evidence that international students, women students, students from ethnic minorities and students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to make use of recordings than students from other categories (Cortinhas, 2017).

On the other hand, there is also evidence suggesting that online learning may have different benefits for students of different abilities, with lower-ability students performing worse in assessments if they are offered online rather than in face-to-face lectures (Cacault et al, 2019). There is certainly a danger that relatively low-cost activities (watching lecture videos) may displace relatively high-cost activities (such as completing assignments) and create incentives for ‘Netflix-style binge-watching’ of lectures ahead of the assessment at the cost of deep learning (Chai, 2014; Morris et al, 2019).

Research on students’ viewing of lecture recordings suggests that study patterns are far from ideal, with most watching teaching videos just after they have been released or in the immediate run-up to assignments (Becker and Proud, 2018; Elliott and Neal, 2016).

Therefore, the overall value of the educational offer proposed by universities during the global pandemic should be assessed on whether it is most likely to support and encourage students to achieve the most effective learning – and not on whether a particular mode of engagement is being used, however iconic it is.

Related question: How will exam disruptions affect young people's futures?

What does a university education without face-to-face lectures look like?

The offering that Cambridge and other universities have announced is an example of blended learning where some material is put online as an ‘asynchronous’ offering – that is, where students interact with it in their own time – while other material can be discussed together in a small group – that is, ‘synchronously’, either face-to-face or, if social distancing requires it, online.

The evidence suggests that appropriately blended learning is at least as effective for student learning as purely face-to-face courses (Olitsky and Cosgrove, 2014). Indeed, most universities already employ a degree of blended learning in their use of virtual learning environments such as Blackboard or Moodle, which can host a variety of resources as well as interactive activities like quizzes and discussion boards.

Blended learning describes a very wide range of possible models in which the specific amount of face-to-face learning relative to online activities is designed for maximum educational effect. One model that has become popular in recent years is ‘flipped’ learning.

Flipped learning involves moving the more transmission-oriented material that was traditionally contained within face-to-face lectures online, as a combination of videos, structured readings and exercises (Birdi and Becker, 2018). A specific example from economics teaching is a new introductory course (CORE) developed over the past decade, which relies heavily on online material and is structured to support flipped models of learning (Birdi, 2018).

The benefits of the flipped model are an increased level of active learning because students can approach the asynchronous material at their own pace and are often encouraged to attempt exercises. Alternatively, there is a requirement for students to take active notes while watching the online material, with a confirmatory test at the beginning of the following face-to-face class (Olitsky and Cosgrove, 2016).

In this way, the rigid norm of two hours of lectures per week can be reconstructed in more flexible ways, adapted to the particular course and material and aimed at increasing the active learning components that have proved to be an important building block into a sustained and deep learning process (Freeman et al, 2014; Baume and Scanlon, 2018).

In spite of the fact that a flipped or other form of blended model may have fewer face-to-face hours, research finds that because of the structured active learning outside the classroom, students perform better in this environment on average (Olitsky and Cosgrove, 2016). These results are matched in other studies (for example, Calimeris and Sauer, 2014).

One of the costs of the move online may be the reduced opportunities to ask direct questions, particularly since there are spillover effects to other students (that is, other students benefit from one individual asking a question).

But it is likely that more explicit, albeit online, space will be given for students to ask questions. This could be either via dedicated Q&A sessions (which perhaps previously were relegated to a few minutes during the lecture) and the extended use of online message-boards where students can ask (and answer) questions in a forum shared with their peers.

There is evidence that highlights learning benefits for students who engage with these discussion forums. Students who only passively engage with message boards and rely on instructors’ answers (without asking or answering any questions themselves) are likely to perform worse (Proud, 2018).

There may also be a cost in terms of the opportunities for social interaction since not all of the benefits of university are captured by learning effects. While all universities, including Cambridge and Manchester, hope to offer some forms of small group, face-to-face tuition, not least to facilitate such social interaction, general social distancing restrictions may well restrict such opportunities for students.

Related question: What is the impact of the crisis on UK university finances?

Should I go or should I stay? Some constants of higher education

Encouragingly, universities considering their educational offer for 2020/21 are likely to retain the most valuable forms of face-to-face interaction, namely small group tutorials, seminars, student presentations, other classes and lab-based activities, where discussion and interaction are more natural than in larger group settings.

Those aspects of face-to-face engagement that evidently have less educational benefit, such as the traditional large lecture, may be replaced by more effective alternatives. Some new online activities such as Q&A sessions and online support hours are also likely to enhance learning opportunities.

A very different history was possible. During the expansion of universities in the 1960s, when the large lecture became increasingly popular in UK higher education it was proposed to drop the small group tutorial system at universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, which had initially developed that form of teaching. The tutorial was seen as elitist and outmoded – and arguments were posed for its elimination.

Moore’s 1968 book, The Tutorial System and its Future, presented a strong defence of the system in terms of its emphasis on the contestability of knowledge and the encouragement of independent thought. Not everyone agreed with Moore’s characterisation of the interactivity of tutorials (see Elton, 2001), and no doubt tutorials and other small group classes in most universities today will contain varying degrees of interactivity and student participation.

Then as now, it seems that students who get the most benefit from any educational model are those who appreciate the contribution to learning that a particular system of teaching has for their education (von Konsky et al, 2009; Ashwin, 2005). So it will be with higher education during the global pandemic.

A new form of education – characterised by blended teaching, the reduction or elimination of large lectures, more active individual online learning and possibly fewer but smaller face-to-face interactive sessions – awaits students in 2020/21. Students who see Covid-19 as the catalyst for expediting an existing direction of travel in higher education will be best placed to secure the value of the brave new world of university tuition.

Where can I find out more?

Engaging students in an online economics community: Tom Allen, Edward Cartwright and Swati Virmani writing at The Economics Network about activities to support social interaction in an online setting.

CORE Economics: The introductory chapter of an online economics course, showing how education has been moving towards online learning models in recent years.

What research says about learning: David Baume and Eileen Scanlon succinctly summarise the recent evidence on effective teaching and learning.

Who are UK experts on this question?

  • Ralf Becker (on the best ways to help students learn statistical computing, on understanding the best way to use new technologies in a face-to-face educational environment, and on helping academics to understand the benefits of discussion boards).
  • Alvin Birdi, Christian Spielmann and Steven Proud at the School of Economics, University of Bristol (on evaluating students’ propensity to interact in online settings compared to traditional face-to-face setting, and on creating instructor support for delivering introductory economics courses online).
  • Caroline Elliott at Aston Business School, Aston University (on the benefits of games, simulations and playful learning in higher education, on the effective use of technologies in university teaching).
  • Sarah Cosgrove
Authors: Ralf Becker, Alvin Birdi, Caroline Elliott and Steven Proud
Picture by Ridofranz on iStock

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