The debate over blended learning

The Covid-19 and vaccination landscapes appear optimistic. However, many universities plan to continue utilising what they call ‘blended learning.’ This means that while most small group teaching is expected to be in-person, lectures will remain online. This move has become a controversial one, with the in-person versus online debate engulfing British universities.

Warwick and Oxford are two universities that have come under fire in this debate by student groups and politicians for continuing to host conferences in lecture halls while keeping lectures online.

Oxford are currently advertising multiple conference rooms and lecture halls for corporate events, but (at the time of writing) are yet to decide if all students will receive entirely in-person education. These are advertised for both the academic term and holidays, including Exeter College’s Saskatchewan lecture hall for events of 120 people.

Oxford University defended their decisions by saying: “We can confirm that use of venues for teaching will remain our priority – academic need always comes before any commercial hiring out. The University always ensures that venues used for teaching and assessment are prioritised for teaching and assessment first and foremost, so there is no conflict of interest.”

The University of Warwick aims to have at least 75% of small teaching groups in-person, while keeping lectures over 50 people online with the option to put smaller lectures online too. However, through their Warwick Conferences arm, the university is currently advertising the two Oculus lecture theatres, the Ramphal Building, and ‘faculty buildings’ for corporate events. The Rootes Building and the Arts Centre’s two theatres and 1,200-seat Butterworth Hall are also advertised.

In response to outcry, Warwick told The Telegraph it will remain “cautious, adaptable and resilient.” They also stated that: “No student teaching facilities are available for external hire during the academic term and Warwick Conferences’ facilities have been made available to support in-person teaching during the forthcoming term.” However, campus conference facilities remain available during term, with Warwick’s teaching facilities still available during holidays. 

Revenue generated through events hosted by Warwick Conferences were also emphasised by the university as beneficial for all. They stated: “All surplus revenue generated by Warwick Conferences is reinvested back into teaching, learning and research.” 

Various groups are involved in this debate over whether lectures should remain online

Various groups are involved in this debate over whether lectures should remain online or return to pre-Covid in-person delivery. Voices include students, unions, politicians, and educational associations such as the Russell Group.

In a statement from 9 August 2021, the Russell Group said: “[Russell Group universities] are prioritising interactive in-person teaching, and are preparing for most seminars, small group classes and lab work to be taught in-person.”

“Universities have invested significantly in the shift to blended learning, and are working to ensure the aspects of teaching, learning and assessment that have been effective online during the pandemic can be retained and built on,” they continued.

The group believes that: “the pandemic has undoubtedly been a catalyst for further change, and universities are working to ensure the aspects of teaching, learning and assessment that have been effective online during the pandemic can be retained and built on for the future for the benefit of all students.”

In further support of blended learning, they argued that it helps universities review “how in-person or ‘contact hours’ are spent to maximise the benefits of this time for students.” They also stated that lectures may simply be a thing of the past and only a part of pre-pandemic education.

[Universities] should not be limiting face-to-face learning based on coronavirus restrictions

– The Department for Education

However, some feel this statement neglects the variety among courses and universities. For example, some Warwick undergraduate courses or modules are delivered in a 2:1 lecture to seminar ratio. 

With news of universities hosting corporate events while keeping lectures online, politicians have also spoken out. Education Select Committee chairman, Robert Halfon, said: “If the university authorities believe their campuses are safe enough for big corporate events, then they should be safe enough for students. After all, students are the ones taking out these huge loans to pay for lectures. Universities should be open for business – the business of educating students, not just for corporate clients.”

The Department for Education also stated that universities “should not be limiting face-to-face learning based on coronavirus restrictions.” Furthermore, Gavin Williamson suggested that universities should resume normal face-to-face lectures or cut the fees they charge students.

The Office for Students’ chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, said students “rightly expect their learning to take priority” over corporate events and any other uses of their university’s facilities.

The Boar approached multiple groups involved in this debate over online lectures for their comments and positions within it. 

Instead of enhancing the student experience, universities are using this as an opportunity to cost cut and cut back on the student experience

– Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president for higher education

A Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) spokesperson said: ‘Students and staff endured chaos in the last academic year, and rightly want to put that behind them, but at present there is a real danger that the disruption could return if there are further Covid outbreaks. Allowing 1,200 people to a hall for a corporate event sounds like a recipe for disaster, and is yet more evidence of vice-chancellors prioritising financial gain over health and safety. No university should be renting out campus space to corporations without having robust Covid risk assessments in place that have been agreed and consulted on with its respective unions.”

The National Union of Students (NUS) president Larissa Kennedy, who is a former Warwick SU Education Officer, was asked on Sky News whether she thought that hybrid or blended learning was the way forward. She replied that in-person teaching “of course cannot be replaced in any way shape or form” but argued, on accessibility grounds, that “it is important that we don’t revert back to how things were,” with online teaching remaining an option for students where desired.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the vice-president for higher education, responded directly to The Boar saying: “The decision of some universities to adopt online teaching as their sole mode of educational delivery for the next academic year is a reflection of the unfair practices that the marketisation of education has produced. Instead of enhancing the student experience, universities are using this as an opportunity to cost cut and cut back on the student experience.

“Nothing can replace face-to-face teaching or being able to socialise in person with your peers, and the campus experience benefits students; and should be enhanced – not replaced by online provision. Disabled students have been calling for years to be able to access lectures online – and suddenly, overnight it was made possible. The sector should not look back on access, but should move forward and build an experience which retains both the accessibility benefits of online learning, and the best elements of the face-to-face experience.”

conference facilities are instead being made available to ensure that more teaching can take place in person

– Spokesperson for the University of Warwick

PWSF, the student campaign group responsible for the petition against the continuation of online lectures, said to The Boar: “It’s disgraceful that Warwick University continues to blatantly prioritise profit over the welfare of its students. The last academic year has been particularly tough on students, with many being unable to make and meet new and old friends, as well as not having access to the in-person high-quality education that they came to university for.” 

They added: “For Warwick University to allow 1200 corporate delegates into our lecture halls but not 51 or more of their own students at once shows how little Warwick cares for their students beyond taking the money that they pay. That Warwick could even consider putting teaching online, permanently, clearly shows that Warwick is putting profit before the welfare and education of its students.”

A spokesperson for the University of Warwick reiterated to The Boar that: “No university teaching facilities (inc. the Oculus or Ramphal) are being or will be used for conferences or such events in the forthcoming term. This has been the case for many years, and, in fact, conference facilities are instead being made available to ensure that more teaching can take place in person.” 

They also referred to an online page highlighting the success among introducing blended learning. Warwick ranked 3rd in terms of overall satisfaction, 1st for assessment and feedback, and in the Top 2 in terms of academic support and learning resources among Russell Group Universities.

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