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Are lectures really going to be online post-pandemic?

University Senior Leadership team (SLT) have confirmed that lectures will not be permanently online post-pandemic.

This week The Mancunion’s Ella Robinson spoke to April McMahon (Vice President for Teaching, Learning and Students) and Dan George (Associate Vice-President for Blended and Flexible Learning) about the shift to blended learning.

The interview, which was livestreamed on The Mancunion’s Facebook page, took place following outcry from students after word circulated that lectures were supposedly set to remain completely online at UoM.

Here’s a breakdown of what the future of blended learning really means for students. 

SLT confirm in-person lectures will return post-pandemic

In response to the pressing question of whether in-person lectures are a thing of the past, Dan George said: “Let me be very, very clear. It is not and has never been our intention to move lectures or teaching permanently online.”

April McMahon said: “Nobody in this University is saying we are outlawing on campus lectures, nobody in this university is saying we are moving our lectures or any particular type of teaching, or all of our teaching online.” “We’ve got so many bookings for the big lecture theatres next year that we’re juggling to fit everything in. So we’re not abandoning our spaces.”

In fact, 70% of all teaching on campus is the minimum aim for most courses. 

April explained that the Humanities department had emailed their students with a 70% in-person minimum figure in June, “But I would say that’s [70% in person] kind of the minimum that we would be aiming at so the great majority of teaching next semester, unless we’ve got to put more coronavirus safe stuff in place, it’s going to be on campus.”

She suggested other courses such as Medicine are likely to have more than 70% of teaching on campus.

In-person contact hours will not be reduced. 

Many students have expressed fears of reduced in-person teaching even after the pandemic if blended learning is continued. Dan George said: “There’s absolutely no driver to reduce contact hours by blended learning […] what we do want to do with blended learning is look at how we use those contact hours and not just assume that the way we’ve used them for the past hundred years is the way that we should use them from now on.”

“The only way that we would go online again, is if we ended up in another kind of lockdown situation”

– April McMahon

So what is blended learning? 

A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “Blended learning is about augmenting in-person lectures, seminars, labs, Q&As and discussions, and workshops with high quality online materials for self-study. Anything we are doing in the digital space is about enhancing not replacing the on-campus teaching and learning experience.”

As Dan George more succinctly put it: “What we’re doing is providing additional material to all of the stuff that you’d already do on campus.”

What will it look like?

The University was very clear that this could vary for different degree courses, and for some courses “what we do already will be the right way to do it and nothing’s going to change”. However, they gave some illustrative examples from the Engineering and Humanities departments.

For Engineering, Dan suggested that typical lecture content could be moved to “pre-watch material” so in the lecture theatre they can do “problems based on what questions you have got on that material”. 

For Humanities, April McMahon explained, “We’re going to have our lectures on campus, we’re going to have our discussion sessions on campus, our small group teachings, they’re going to be on campus. What’s going to be online, some revision sessions, some extra content of the sort that you need to really really really know that will be their own time that you can keep going back and you can practice, you can do quizzes and things.”

Will it affect student workload? 

A significant concern for many students, particularly after the sudden shift to online learning increased workloads for many, but Dan assured: “there is no need to increase student workload with this.

“What we definitely don’t want to do is increase time, we just want to sort of shift around how people work and how they use their time.”

Will there be a referendum on blended learning? 

Although April acknowledged the SU can have a referendum on anything that fits its conditions, she said, “To have a referendum I think it would be really important to be comfortable that you’re familiar with what would be being proposed.

“We don’t have concrete proposals yet for exactly what learning would look like. And the reason that we don’t have concrete proposals, is because we want to get students involved, first, and then make the definite proposals, so it would seem to me kind of odd.”

What’s driving this change?

Whilst it initially seems that this permanent blended learning has come out of the pandemic, it has in fact been included in public ‘Our Future’ strategy documents since January 2020. 

Dan George said, “We’re very much in a digital world so it would be quite remiss if we didn’t have that conversation around well what, how should we use this digital content and that’s what we’re doing.”

The Mancunion spoke to student representatives from the School of Biological Sciences and the Alliance Manchester Business School who said: “The word blended learning has a sort of negativity associated with it now, and that’s not how the university intended it to be.”

Particularly, the student reps explain, as the phrase ‘blended learning’ was used during the pandemic “when the university thought that you could come in, but then stuff went really bad at the start of the year in terms of cases, so students are associating this [lockdown learning] with blended learning”.

Will blended learning save the University money?

A number of calls have been made for tuition fees to be reduced if the University does move to blended learning, but they argue that costs will remain high even after the initial set up – “We still need to update that content […] it isn’t just that you make it once and it’s done.”

Dan further reiterated that costs will not go down as the face-to-face experience will continue: “But remember, this is, this is the material that augments that face-to-face on-campus experience. So, we need people to do that. And, you know, we need students there and we need lecturers there as well in the same way that it’s not, so it’s no different to how it is now.”

Are staff in support? 

After second and third years have had much of their degrees so far affected by strikes, a number of students raised staff support as an issue. A particular concern was that, under the existing system, the University owns the intellectual property rights to lecturers content: “We as employees of the University, create material as part of our jobs, and the IP is currently owned by the university” (Steve Pettifer). 

But it seems the University are working to address this issue, with a University spokesperson saying: “We are working with UCU on the creation of a new policy relating to recorded teaching materials; this gives staff significant discretion as to how and when recordings they have made are used, and includes a specific clause that prevents the University using recordings when someone has left the University’s employment, specifically to address this concern.”

Steve Pettifer clarified, “By default, when somebody leaves, the University won’t use their material and that’s written into the new policy as a protection to make it clear to people that this is not about exploiting their work.”

Are these blended learning materials going to be accessible for disabled students? 

Following the scathing Accessibility Report that demonstrated that disabled students had been left alone and unsupported during the shift to online learning in 2020, Dan Geroge agreed: “The accessibility should be embedded in the course design right from the outset, and then to support this clear guidance is going to be produced to make the provision uniform across all the different programs that we’ve got as well.

“So, it’s sort of embedded in everything we do, whether we’re talking about assessments, whether we’re talking about sort of lecturing material, whether we’re talking about study budgets, whatever it is, accessibility and inclusiveness is absolutely embedded right from the beginning.”

How to have your say:

The student representatives emphasised the importance of students getting involved in the blended learning decision-making process whilst it is still at the planning stage – “If we come together like we are doing now, our voices will be heard”. 

The student reps specifically suggested contacting your individual school about blended learning proposals as much of the blended learning decision-making process is to be made at a school level.

The University of Manchester centrally are also running two open meetings where you can raise your concerns, one of which took place today 9 July (12-1pm) and the other which is due to run on 15 July (12-1pm). You can also contact April McMahon (Vice President for Teaching, Learning and Students) and Dan George (Associate Vice-President for Blended and Flexible Learning) at [email protected].

You can watch the full interview on The Mancunion’s Facebook page.

Tags: april mcmahon, Blended learning, interview with slt, online learning, online lectures

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