Scientists have challenged the Westminster government’s claim that in-person teaching is essential to protect student wellbeing.
They claim that while this may be true for tuition in normal circumstances, the “Covid-secure” alternative may be less beneficial.
In a letter to students and vice-chancellors, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan advised against a complete switch to digital learning.
The new lockdown guidelines state that universities should move to online learning where possible, but Ms Donelan warned that a total shift online “could jeopardise the learning that students receive, as well as risk their mental health and well-being”.
However, this statement has been questioned by a number of academics over whether the benefits of in-person teaching outweigh the risks.
Elizabeth Stokoe, professor of social interaction at Loughborough University and a member of the Independent Sage group of scientists, said that there was “no evidence to support,” Ms Donelan’s claim, while there is plenty to demonstrate that online learning can be highly effective.
This opinion was echoed by John Drury, professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex and another member of Independent Sage.
He said: “Yes, groups and interaction are good for our students’ mental health. But the equation of ‘connection’ with in-person teaching, and hence in-person teaching with mental health, is speculative rather than evidence-based.”
Stephen Reicher, Bishop Wardlaw professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews and another Independent Sage member, said that current restrictions limited the benefits of in-person learning.
“I have heard many people say that you get much more of a sense of connection with online platforms, where you see everyone’s face, as opposed to the back of their head or their mask,” he said.
There is anecdotal evidence that students are choosing to attend remote classes instead of in-person sessions, with Peter Mathieson, vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, stating: “Students are electing to come in remotely.”
Yes, groups and interaction are good for our students’ mental health. But the equation of ‘connection’ with in-person teaching, and hence in-person teaching with mental health, is speculative rather than evidence-based
– Professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex, John Drury
However, there are concerns that moving totally online could disadvantage poorer students and those without access to quiet spaces and good broadband.
Simon Wesseley, professor of psychological medicine at King’s College London, said: “The transition to online has disproportionately affected those students from less well-off backgrounds. University is a time of learning, transition, maturity and independence…I think it is right that to say that in-person teaching is better for mental health than the opposite, and not just teaching, it is all aspects of what a university education provides.”
Universities have different policies on online learning. It was announced earlier this year that Cambridge would move all of its face-to-face lectures online, while Warwick is offering a policy of blended learning, moving larger classes online while offering smaller ones in person.
It has since been announced that institutions must end in-person teaching and switch to online classes by early December to enable students to travel home for Christmas.