This is online learning’s moment. For universities, it’s a total mess

Neasden Control Centre

Jazz West should be in the final term of her first year at the University of Leeds, studying maths and natural sciences in a classroom with 40 other students. Instead, she sits in front of her laptop listening to pre-recorded lectures. Because West is at high risk of illness from coronavirus and her family doesn’t own a car, she can’t make the three-hour long journey home to Milton Keynes by public transport. She has been self-isolating in student accommodation since March 15, the day she turned 19 and a week before the UK went into lockdown.
When the coronavirus outbreak shut down universities in March, thousands of British students attended live-streamed lectures for the first time, and swapped practical group work for remote assignments. Professors scrambled to move their classes online to continue teaching for the third term. From Blackboard to Panopto to Minerva, most universities already had hosting platforms in place where course materials could be uploaded; but for academics and students with little or no experience of pre-recorded or live-streamed lectures, the quick transition to online learning was painful.


“We just spent four weeks in pure panic and confusion, not knowing what we were meant to be doing,” says West. “For things like essays, all the support we’d normally get just wasn’t accessible, because we weren’t in [class] and it wasn’t very clear where to get that help. So there were a lot of people struggling.”
As thousands of students logged into their university’s systems at the same time, poor connections and technical problems were the norm – and for the most part, teachers were left alone to troubleshoot issues, fix poor audio and video quality, and follow up with students individually to make sure they could access any missed content.
With no end to the pandemic in sight, virtual classes are here to stay. They solve the problem of packed lecture halls and hallways that aren’t designed for social distancing – and are also far cheaper to run. But not many people want to pay almost £10,000 a year for the privilege of attending Zoom calls. Many UK universities are bracing for a gaping hole in their budgets as they expect fewer students to turn up in the autumn. A survey found that one in five people were willing to delay their undergraduate degrees if universities were not operating as normal due to the coronavirus pandemic. With 120,000 fewer students starting in September, UK universities could face a £760 million loss of income in tuition fees.
The University of Manchester, which has announced plans to keep lectures online-only in the autumn term, is already preparing for the worst. On April 23, vice-chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell told staff that redundancies and pay cuts may be necessary if 80 per cent of students from outside the EU and 20 per cent of UK and EU students decided to stay defer or drop out. In the worst-case scenario, the university could lose up to £270m in a single year – a 15 to 25 per cent deficit.


Unlike schools, universities are privately-run institutions free to develop their own roadmaps for getting out of lockdown. The University of Cambridge has become the first university in the country to say it will offer courses online for the entire 2020-21 academic year. With social distancing measures likely to stay in place for the foreseeable future, other universities are expected to follow suit with a “blended” mix of online lecturers and small group teaching – for seminars, practical and laboratory work, and supervisions – on campus. Start and break times will be staggered to avoid overcrowding and universities will redesign study areas and cafeterias to make them “Covid secure”. But that will only work if universities can be dragged out of their traditional format and forced to use technology that works.
Online lectures generally go wrong when academics decide to record lessons using the same slides they had previously prepared for face-to-face teaching, says Kyungmee Lee, a lecturer in technology enhanced learning at Lancaster University. “People have a very fixed mindset about lectures. That’s how they have been educated and that’s how they have been teaching for many years. Suddenly, they try to almost translate what they have done in their own practice and just move things online without redesigning the components of their teaching,” she says. “Of course, it doesn’t really work.”
The simple “onlinification” of face-to-face lectures doesn’t work well. In some cases, lectures last three hours each, and the text intended to be projected onto a screen in a lecture theatre is difficult to decipher on a laptop or handheld device at home. Some academics also choose to livestream their lectures during their normal class schedule to allow for questions, but students stuck abroad are unable to tune in and have to catch up with work in their own time. Others simply direct their students to “lecture captures”, recordings of classroom lectures from previous years.
Because of the technical difficulties during and after lessons, lecturers and teachers have had to put in extra hours and deal with an increasing number of student complaints. The latter has been particularly concerning for lecturers and teachers on fixed-term or zero-hour contracts who rely on positive feedback to secure permanent employment. Keeping students engaged is another challenge, which is difficult enough in face-to-face classes. Between 40 and 80 per cent of online students tend to drop out, compared with ten to 20 per cent studying on campus.


The University of Cambridge’s decision to stay online could set a precedent for the shift from traditional lecture-based teaching to student-centred online learning, says Lee. “It’s a totally different discussion now that we have to think about the entire year of teaching practice. We can just do so many different things.” Drawing from what has worked and what hasn’t during lockdown, lecturers and teachers will have more time on their hands to restructure their courses with the necessary support of instructional designers, programmers and illustrators.
Unfortunately, the budget to restructure courses in this way may no longer exist. Universities are overspending on research and are making ends meet by supplementing their budgets with tuition fees from international students – the cohort most likely to stay away in the next academic year. An analysis by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), an Oxford-based think tank, found that universities in England and Northern Ireland received around £8.5 billion for research in 2017-18, but spent £12.2bn which they made up for with the £4.9bn paid by non-EU students in tuition fees.
“My sense is home students will enrol at university in similar numbers to previous years. Because what else are they going to do? If they don’t go to university, they’re not going to be able to have interesting gap years,” says Nick Hillman, director of the HEPI. EU students, he adds, may still be willing to come to the UK before their tuition fees go up post-Brexit.
But the number of foreign students from outside the EU will likely drop significantly because of movement restrictions, safety concerns, and the cost of tuition and living. Some students simply may not want to come all the way to the UK for a predominantly online course. “The question is not only how many people turn up in the autumn, it’s also how quickly demand recovers afterwards,” says Hillman. “So even if it is down very, very dramatically for one academic year, does it recover the following year? Does it take two or three years to recover? Does it never recover?”
Since UK universities announced their plans for the next term, many prospective students are reconsidering their plans, including Ashley Huntington from New York who has been accepted for a master’s degree in gender studies at the University of Cambridge. “I feel like Cambridge offers not just a fantastic academic opportunity but a wonderful and meaningful social experience,” she says. “I would be moving to a new country and completely isolated, even if we didn’t have this pandemic. So something like this situation, where classes may be online with limited in-person social activities makes me question if I should defer for the year.”
To offer fee-paying students – both existing and prospective ones – some form of normality, universities will also have to find ways to recreate the full university experience. Students that decide to pay up for their course and start in September will still expect to sit together in classrooms for practicals, seminars and tutorials, to network at job fairs and to join university clubs.
On May 19, the University of Bolton offered a glimpse into the future of campus life: airport-style temperature scanners at entrances, bikes for loan, tables with plastic dividing screens, and compulsory face masks are some of the new measures that would make its campus “Covid secure”. Earlier in May, the universities minister Michelle Donelan said that British universities would still be able to charge the full tuition fee of almost £10,000 per year while campuses remained closed as long as they can maintain high standards of online learning. But while universities are still figuring out how to combine virtual lectures with safe on-campus teaching, students are weighing uncertainty.
“Students need clarity as to what they can expect from the next academic year in order for them to make informed choices and all staff must continue to be paid regardless of this decision,” Zamzam Ibrahim, president of the National Union of Students, said in a statement following the recent university “roadmap” announcements.
As online learning picks up pace, Oxbridge and other top universities will likely be able to attract and retain international students, says Lee. “It’s true that [students] really want an intercultural experience. However, at the end of the day, they want a degree from a UK University.”
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