The Case for In-Person Teaching

Sebastian Erskine 29 October 2020
Image Credits: Reuters, Eric Gaillard

As an Undergraduate Representative for the Faculty of History, I am all too aware of disruption to the provision of teaching. In pre-Covid-19 times, students I represented were forced to cope with industrial action in both Michaelmas and Lent terms of 2019-20 that brought lectures and seminars to a standstill. With no sign of the University acquiescing in the demands of those striking, students became collateral in a dispute they had not brought about. Perhaps, we can be forgiven for the extent of our exasperation now as the CUSU, a student representative body, unilaterally demands a move to all-online teaching.

It is worth examining what the status quo looks like for students, both in Humanities and STEM contexts. A cursory look at the University’s published guidance should offer confidence that this is merely white noise. We are told that teaching “is currently delivered by a blend of in-person and online provision.” Moreover, “where possible, seminars, practicals, and supervisions are taking place in person.” Having spoken to students both at my college and across a number of Faculties, the reality on the ground could not be more different. I must add the proviso that, until an empirical study is undertaken, I am relying on anecdotal evidence. Yet, the unambiguous nature of University assurances places the burden on senior officials to demonstrate uniformity. Teaching staff, ostensibly spooked by the recent surge in cases, have, in many cases, simply moved one-hour supervisions online. This piece is no way intended to challenge that prerogative. Yet, just as staff have the right to opt-out of delivering teaching in-person, students, who often incur a significant financial burden to attend higher education, should have the right to determine the form their teaching takes.

Immediately, it must be pointed out that the quality of online teaching is objectively inferior to in-person provision. Students have complained of being left at the mercy of a characteristically unreliable Eduroam. Buffering runs down an already constrained clock, hinders a free-flowing academic discussion, and leaves both parties immensely dissatisfied. From a behavioural standpoint, both student and teacher are unable to gauge emotions, read cues, or convey a point through simple gesticulation. Gone is the spontaneity that comes with personal interaction. This is not to mention the challenge of feedback. Students must flit between multiple tabs to find a chosen passage, make notes, and return to the Zoom booth. It’s clumsy, unnatural, and more to the point, utterly unnecessary.

There exist a plethora of options to make in-person teaching Covid-19 secure. I know of some supervisions taking place as socially-distanced walks along the Cam. Yet, even in a standard teaching room, a number of measures can be put in place: i) windows should be opened, ii) masks should be worn by both parties, iii) sanitiser should be readily available and used both before and after the session, and iv) a social distance of 2m, where possible, should be observed. In a zone under tier-one restrictions, such as Cambridge, such measures ensure that the experience is safer than mixing in a restaurant, pub, or bar – all of which are fully permitted under government guidance. The logical extension of the CUSU’s protestations is that no indoor mixing should be sanctioned. Shopping in a supermarket, meeting a friend in a café, visiting a library would all raise similar, if not more troublesome, questions.

SAGE’s important, albeit tempered, intervention on the issue of in-person teaching requires careful examination. Firstly, Cambridge, and its counterpart Oxford, are exceptional. Very few universities offer small-size and individual supervisions, but rather host seminars that extend to double figures. Secondly, the situation here pales in comparison to Covid-19 hotspots, such as Nottingham, Manchester, and Sheffield. Whilst rising – in part due to the success of the asymptomatic testing programme – Cambridge saw a rate of 163 cases per 100,000 in the latest week. This is compared to 526, 470, and 429 in those aforementioned university cities. Thirdly, we should not forget that SAGE, by definition, is an independent body. They are unelected and are thus not responsible for drafting legislation. That maxim ‘Ministers decide, advisors advise,’ carries wait. Nor is the science uncontested. Leading epidemiologists across the world have drawn different conclusions from standard data sets. We should thus not impose homogeneity where it does not exist.

Finally, a powerful case can be made for the mental health of a generation. A recent report by the NHS presses home the importance of this issue. From a survey of 3,570, researchers concluded that the extended period of lockdown made life worse for 40% of children aged 11 to 16. University students are in no way immune to these stresses. If anything, their impact can be worse. Removed from family, placed in unfamiliar settings, and restricted in their freedom to socialise, these students deserve significant attention. By hastily moving online, we further restrict the opportunity for them to interact with others in a meaningful sense. And to what end? Even if we accept (which, as I have explained, is in no way guaranteed) that we very marginally reduce the risk to our physical health, we simply place an additional burden on our mental health.

Students can be forgiven for wondering when they will stop being asked to make sacrifices that often seem unacceptable. Cicero’s much-quoted line, salus populi suprema lex esto, extends to some of these. Yet, a move to all-online teaching is a step too far. We should oppose it.