Covid gives us a chance to take higher education by the scruff of the neck

Lecturers are opening up about teaching, sharing ideas and taking student engagement seriously

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 crisis has impacted hugely on education, especially at primary and secondary levels. The third-level sector, however, has been able to continue at close-to-normal pace, thanks to the fact that older students are more capable of adapting to online learning.

The move to online learning has led to a lot of handwringing and suggestions that students are being short-changed and somehow missing out. Yes, they are missing out on the rite-of-passage aspect of higher education, but I suspect many students will not miss the long commutes, the sub-standard accommodation, the less-than-ideal timetables and the constant stress of having to juggle studies and part-time jobs.

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But will their education suffer? To answer this question, we first need to talk about the reality of modern day third-level education.

Higher education is a place where students are supposed to take charge of their own learning. It’s not school. They must attend for some types of modules, notably laboratory ones, and they must hand in assignments on time.

Other than that, they are free to do what they like. They are treated like adults. Many choose not to attend many lectures at all and, indeed, most lecturers have had experiences of walking into an exam hall to check on our students only to ask ourselves “Who’s that guy?”

No moderation of individual lecturers takes place. And so, the standard of lecturing is variable, from the inspirational to the coma-inducing while differing in style and method

Most students, however, attend for a good percentage of their lectures and, indeed, many students like lectures, not because they are necessarily the optimum mechanism for learning, but because they keep students on track.

One key aspect of lecturing is that while modern universities are laden down with quality assurance systems, no moderation of individual lecturers takes place. And so, the standard of lecturing is variable, from the inspirational to the coma-inducing while differing in style and method: blackboard, whiteboard, Apple pen, PowerPoint, you name it.

That’s fine because we’re not corporations tasked with delivering branded lessons, complete with company logos, where everyone is on message. The essence of a higher education is diversity.

When Covid arrived, the transition to online learning had to occur rapidly, almost instantaneously in fact, and, no doubt, some lecturers lacked the skills to step up to the plate. Most however, as demonstrated in a recent Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) report, managed very well and I can safely say that in my school in DCU, students appreciated our efforts and, in some cases, found that their learning improved.

Indeed, quite a few pointed out that laboratories that had been moved online forced the students to think a lot more compared with regular laboratories where students often tend to work “on autopilot”.

If that’s the current reality of higher education, what about the directions in which it is moving? Ever since the turn of the century there has been movement of so-called progressive educators, education consultants and gurus of all kinds who have championed the idea that our current education system is not fit for purpose and that it needs to be revolutionised, not just tweaked.

The late Sir Ken Robinson, for example, became a worldwide celebrity by claiming that "schools kill creativity". Many, including teachers and academics, lapped this stuff up.

At the beginning of this century, many respected academics were extolling the virtues of Moocs (massive open online courses) with many suggesting a young child in sub-Saharan Africa, armed with nothing more than a phone, could get a qualification worthy of MIT.

Politicians, business leaders and all sorts of other stakeholders have bemoaned the “fact” that students lack 21st century skills and that we need to adopt much more active approaches to learning, not passive methods epitomised by the traditional lecture. Students, they claim, need to acquire less knowledge and more skills!

I'd be quite happy to never give a traditional lecture again. I would miss the human contact, as would many of my colleagues, but it's not all about us. It's about the students

The same people also say we need to champion “flexible learning” so that students, including those already in the workplace, are able to avail of lifelong learning, a form of learning that is often deemed to be essential in the rapidly changing 21st century.

Most advocates of progressive education methods (active learning, problem-based learning, digital learning, and so on) are silent now, which is rather strange. If they really believed in their ideas, they’d be out in the media reassuring students and parents alike that their sons and daughters are not going to receive a sub-standard education.

For what it’s worth, I’d be quite happy to never give a traditional lecture again. I would miss the human contact, as would many of my colleagues, but it’s not all about us. It’s about the students.

One thing I know for sure is my colleagues and I have never had so many discussions about the basic purpose of education, the design of assessments, the difference between “nice to dos” and “need to dos” and the need to spread students’ workload evenly over the semester.

Interestingly, I have never heard so many colleagues being so open about their teaching, sharing ideas, comparing approaches and taking the whole question of student “engagement” so seriously.

The tragedy of Covid has provided us with a real opportunity to take our higher education system by the scruff of the neck and make real change for the better. The future doesn’t have to be all online, at least not in the sense that students will have to learn from home, but it will incorporate online elements and it will rely less on cramming hundreds of students into lecture halls to hear a Powerpoint presentation. Let’s try to be positive.