Forget freshers’ week: universities prepare to teach new first years online

Forget freshers' week: universities prepare to teach new first years online
Forget freshers' week: universities prepare to teach new first years online

Forget freshers’ week: universities prepare to teach new first years online Sixth formers, whose A-level exams were cancelled because of coronavirus, may miss out on freshers’ week too. Universities have confirmed they are making plans to start the next academic year online if social distancing continues.

Vice-chancellors are braced for potentially huge losses from the lucrative international student market from September, following disruption to end-of-school learning and exams, as well as to the English-language testing required to get into a UK university.

And now experts are warning that if social distancing measures stretch into the autumn, many UK-based students might also choose to defer going to university rather than start the year in their bedrooms at home.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank says: “I feel for these young people as their A-levels have been disrupted and they won’t get to go to their school leavers’ proms. Now they may not have their freshers’ weeks either.”

He warns that if home students don’t turn up in September, institutions will face a dangerous cut in income. “Some universities will start falling over. Universities will play a valuable part in pulling us out of the recession that is coming, so it is more important than ever that they survive.”

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Vice-chancellors are hoping to reopen campuses in time for the new academic year, but say they are working on contingency plans in case the lockdown is still in place, or they are forced to close again at short notice if the virus resurges in the winter.

Many institutions are proposing to start first-year degrees online and move to face-to-face lectures and teaching in the second term, or as soon as campuses are able to open. But some say this is not a good option for school-leavers who haven’t yet learned to study independently, and they would push the start of the year back to January.

Colin McCaig, professor of higher education policy at Sheffield Hallam University, says: “I have real doubts about young people’s willingness or preparedness to start an online degree this autumn.”

Existing students who are used to studying at university are more able to cope with the disruption of teaching shifting online for a term or two, he says. “But it’s another thing entirely for young people who have been looking forward to starting the more usual higher education experience.”

Diana Paton, William Robertson professor of history at Edinburgh University, has been talking to her daughter about the possibility that the drama degree she plans to begin at the Queen Mary University of London in September might have to start online.

“We are advising her to wait and see. But drama is a very practical subject that involves working with other people in the same physical space. So she doesn’t feel it would make sense for her to start studying her degree online, and we agree,” she says.

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Paton says this would be a big disappointment for her daughter, who has already had her gap year ruined by the virus, having returned from a planned three-month trip to south-east Asia after only three weeks.

She thinks starting online would be challenging for students regardless of their subject. “One of the things first-year undergraduates find difficult is the transition from school to university. Part of dealing with that is getting to know their cohort, and meeting people outside of their degree.”

Hillman agrees that first-year students may feel lost without a face-to-face university experience. “Our research has shown that students really like lectures. That’s not because they are a good way to learn, but because they are a social occasion. Online learning is a good second best, but for many, it is just that – second best.”

He adds: “Students who move into a hall with 300 other people often feel lonely, so how are you going to feel if you are sitting in a bedroom at home on your own?”

Hillman says many young people will not be keen to put the university on hold. But, he adds, if they do, the consequences for universities, already struggling to deal with losing international students, will be grave.

Neil Morris, professor of educational technology at the University of Leeds says, however, that good online courses are in fact “very social”. “They are very much about interactive discussions and group work. But they have to be designed from the start with that in mind.”

With online learning traditionally taking months to design, universities will be scrambling to produce something sufficiently professional and engaging in time for September.Forget freshers’ week: universities prepare to teach new first years online

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Morris says: “I think a lot of universities should be able to do this by the autumn, given that they’ve been an up-scaling online provision in recent years anyway. But those that haven’t already been working on this will find it much more difficult.”

Dr Doug Clow, who spent 20 years at the Open University and is now advising higher education on the Coronavirus, says universities have delivered an “incredible” emergency response, moving all teaching online overnight with “next to no resource”.

He is confident they will be ready to launch their degrees online in the autumn. “But the fact is that whatever universities prepare, it is still going to fall far short of what a sensible, planned start to an online programme would be.”

Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions and outreach at the University of Bath, says: “Students are accepting that the sudden switch to online teaching is all a bit belt and braces, but if we are relying on this as a means of delivery in September then it will need to look and feel much slicker.”

He says learning technology experts and academics are working hard to find new ways to put often very complicated teaching online – but says the sector must not forget poorer students.

“There is a big issue of whether all students have access to high-speed broadband or a quiet place in their household where they can study.”

However, Prof Alec Cameron, vice-chancellor of Aston University, is sceptical about pushing first years online. “I’ve always been reticent about online education for school leavers. It is fantastic for older learners who are juggling study alongside work and family commitments because they tend to be very self-motivated. But it is different if you are just starting out.”

If social distancing is still in place, Aston would look at starting first years in January. They would aim to “accelerate” the year, with students making up the lost time between June and August.

Chris Ince, secretary and registrar at London Metropolitan University, says his university might also postpone the start of degrees. “We might look at pushing back enrolment to October or November, depending on what is happening, and then compress the academic year by removing reading weeks and so on.”

He adds: “We already have about 10% of our undergraduate intake starting in January, and they compress their course into two-and-a-half years, so we know it is achievable. But trying to do that with an entire cohort would be a big shift.”Forget freshers’ week: universities prepare to teach new first years online

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