Class of 2021: how will you learn at university?

Scenes of overflowing lecture halls, with impassioned professors inspiring students, are a staple of any university-based drama. But for many students choosing the institution where they want to study in September 2021, they may be a thing of the past.

Following the coronavirus pandemic, from September lecture theatres are more likely to be used as spaces where socially distanced seminars can be held. Increasingly, lectures – or at least the content contained within them – are being moved online.

Some students are worried about the number of contact hours – a loose term referring to the amount of time spent with tutors through lectures, seminars and tutorials – they will get this year, while students looking ahead to September 2021 could be forgiven for feeling apprehensive.

“When students go back, teaching and learning will undoubtedly be different,” says Allison Littlejohn, director of University College London’s knowledge lab. “There will definitely be less face-to-face teaching in the next semester, and more blended learning.” A Times Higher Education snapshot survey found this year that most institutions were hoping to offer a mixture of face-to-face and online teaching.

Asked if she thinks the class of 2020-21 will experience the same scenario, Littlejohn pauses. “The truth is, I don’t know,” she says. “If universities find that students like a mix of methods, they may switch to having more online learning. I do think there will be more online and blended learning going forward.”

But it could mean that the students of 2021-22 can expect – in some ways – a much richer experience. According to Littlejohn, a good blended course will include a clear structure, access to resources such as short videos and – most importantly – activities to help students learn specific concepts and test understanding.

According to the Higher Education Policy Institute’s (Hepi) 2020 survey of student experiences, the contact hours students can expect varies significantly from course to course. Veterinary students see the highest number of hours, and communications and media students the fewest. But despite strikes and the pandemic, this year students still reported more timetabled contact hours, in smaller class sizes.

Many students have already seen much of their learning move online, but that hasn’t necessarily led to a reduction in contact hours. Katie Adamson, a 19-year-old second-year law student, was among the Cambridge student body that learned all lectures would be online until at least summer 2021.

Having the lecture content readily available before supervised group work has proved useful, and it’s not the only bonus, Adamson says. “We get to stay in bed longer and not risk missing our lectures because of it,” she jokes. She has been told to expect the same contact hours when she returns, and while lectures will be online, “supervisions” – or classes – will continue in small, socially distanced groups. “I’m really grateful for that,” she says. “The most important part of our academic experience will continue as much as possible.”

Real interaction, as long as it’s safe, is crucial to good learning, says Littlejohn. “There has to be the opportunity to forge connections,” she explains. “Going for coffee with friends after a lecture is often as informative as the lecture. Not only do you learn about the subject, but you learn to be with people who are quite different to those you knew before.”

Online learning portals can also use learning analytics to track whether students are keeping up, while predictive modelling can flag if a student is likely to drop out and alert tutors that they may need to provide more support.

“Academically, it can be very difficult for students to be noticed in large settings. In a lecture hall with hundreds of others, it’s impossible really to know if they are understanding,” says Littlejohn.

Imogen Dear, a second-year criminology and sociology student at the University of Surrey, has been told to expect eight to nine hours of lectures and seminars per week with bite-size videos, key reading and activities. “Our lecturers will be able to see if we’re viewing the videos, reading and activities, and I presume if we’re not taking part in online learning, we’ll have a one-to-one meeting with our personal tutor,” she says. “I’m not worried about the blended learning, or them tracking my work – it actually motivates me.”

According to Helen Higson, provost and deputy vice-chancellor at Aston University, students would do better to focus on quality of contact, rather than quantity. “Lots of research shows that it isn’t contact hours but class size that makes the difference,” she says. In 2015 the government lifted a cap on university places in England, allowing institutions to recruit as many students as they wanted, which in some instances led to large class sizes and “a more passive learning experience”.

“Universities have had a bad press over the past few years, and in a way justifiably, because we didn’t look at our core purpose,” she says. “Our core purpose is transforming lives, and we’ve been forced to do that.”

But will 2020-21 students be at a disadvantage if, as some experts warn, too many students defer their university place this year? Overcrowding is already a problem in some places: earlier this year students at prestigious universities were being turned away from lectures and told to watch classes online or in overflow rooms.

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at Hepi, thinks those fears are largely unfounded. A demographic dip means there are fewer 18-year-olds this year fighting for places, with numbers only expected to return to pre-2016 levels after the 2020-21 cohort. The uncertainty of coronavirus may make this September’s students think twice about postponing, she says. “When there are no options for travelling and less part-time work available, it may be we don’t see such high numbers taking a year out.”

She advises would-be students to look beyond contact hours and class sizes and find out about support structures, availability of tutors, information about how prospective universities will support students into a job, and employability data. “Students really have to look at the bigger picture,” she says.

There could be benefits from the coronavirus pandemic for the 2021 intake, too. The rapid changes have forced universities to be creative, and overhaul their online offerings, says Ian Dunn, provost of Coventry University. “I see it as a huge opportunity to do things differently,” he says.

At Coventry, academics work hand-in-hand with learning designers to “create a story and bring a richness of resources” to online courses, almost turning learning into a game, he adds. “It’s not a set of powerpoint slides, or someone doing an hour’s lecture into a video camera. Good online resources might include an introductory two-minute video, then maybe links to resources, maybe a quiz.”

Eva Terziyski, a second-year history and Russian student at the University of Bristol, says her key advice to newbies is not to fixate on what the university provides, but to make sure you are mentally prepared to self-motivate. “It’s not like school, where you’re going to get shouted at if you miss a class,” she says. “You’re paying to be there, so really your success is your responsibility.”

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