Why we need a transition to online teaching

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This article is intended to make various clarifications about the contents of the face-to-face teaching pledge released by the SU last week and explain how recent events have made the demand for a managed transition to online teaching and learning so important.


What is Cambridge SU’s current position on face-to-face teaching?


Last week, Cambridge SU released a pledge for students to sign requesting that all non-essential in-person teaching be moved online. The pledge expresses concern about Cambridge University’s expectation and assurance that face-to-face teaching is sustainable, despite inadequate safety measures being put in place across the University and a large proportion of teaching already being delivered online. As a result, the pledge calls for all non-essential teaching to be moved online, acknowledging that for as long as the University commits to face-to-face teaching as the preferred mode of teaching delivery, it will neglect to adequately develop the online teaching which is currently crucial to students’ education. It is ultimately designed to lobby the University to make a managed transition to online teaching as default in order to firstly minimise the inevitable disruption that will be caused by current circumstances, and secondly encourage greater support for the online provision that so many students are already relying on.


This pledge is the latest development in the SU’s #DemandSafeCambridge campaign, a campaign launched in the summer which previously advocated for an opt-in system of face-to-face teaching (with online teaching therefore positioned as the default) as part of a broader vision for a safe and supportive University during a pandemic. It builds on this demand in light of current circumstances and, in line with recommendations made to the government by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and the stated position of both the University and College Union (UCU) and the National Union of Students (NUS), calls for all non-essential in-person teaching to be moved online.


Since we released our pledge, 18 students over 11 households tested positive for COVID-19 in Homerton College, sparking the isolation of an accommodation block housing 223 people. This has come in the context of a rising number of cases in Cambridge - we have no reason to believe that Homerton will be an isolated case and are concerned that outbreaks will increasingly disrupt the face-to-face teaching which students have been assured is sustainable by the University. 


What is ‘essential’ in-person teaching? 


The UCU clarification on this is extremely helpful: ‘UCU supports a default position that all HE teaching provision should be through online/remote means except where this is practically impossible (e.g. for laboratory-based teaching and courses with practical elements such as performing arts, sciences, and some arts courses)’. It is difficult to provide an exhaustive list and at times a case-by-case by approach may be required to assess whether in-person elements are ‘essential’, but this encompasses the general principle. It is also worth noting that there are numerous examples of practical teaching provision being moved online, e.g. remote lab teaching.


Why have we launched this pledge? 


The pledge builds on the demands of the #DemandSafeCambridge campaign, which was launched by Cambridge SU at the end of August after extensive student-staff consultation. We met with over 50 J/MCR Presidents and student-staff groups such as UCU and the Liberation Campaigns, held open forums and drop-in sessions, and encouraged students to get in touch with us through a feedback form. Through these discussions about the University’s COVID-19 plans and provisions, it became clear to us that not enough was being done to mitigate and minimise the disruption of COVID-19 to students’ lives and futures, and existing arrangements lacked consistency and clarity.  


The demand for an opt-in system for face-to-face teaching with online teaching provision positioned as the default was a direct outcome of these student-staff consultations, and was corroborated by the recent revelations that SAGE recommended in September that all non-essential university teaching should take place online - advice which was ignored by the UK Government. In light of current circumstances, the pledge has developed the original #DemandSafeCambridge campaign demand into a request that all non-essential in-person teaching be moved online as the default mode of provision. There are a variety of powerful arguments in favour of this:


1. Limiting the risk of transmission


The SAGE recommendations were clear: moving as much teaching and learning online as possible is necessary to reduce close contact between people from different households and minimise the risk of transmission. There is a particular need for us to consider the safety of the community as a whole in order to safeguard those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.


While face-to-face teaching is not the only means of transmission, it is one that the University is broadly able to minimise while providing a safer, online equivalent. This is not the case for other valuable aspects of student life, such as in-person socialising or various enriching extra-curricular activities. By limiting non-essential contact and prioritising contact which is essential for student mental health (see section on student wellbeing below), we can limit the risk of transmission while mitigating the impacts on student loneliness.


The current system also endangers supervisors in particular. They are not informed if they have been in contact with a positive student unless the affected individual contacts them directly, which is causing increasing anxiety amongst those who teach. In particular, postgraduate students who supervise are also more likely to live in private accommodation, rendering them ineligible for the University’s asymptomatic testing programme. And as hourly-paid workers rather than secure University employees, the current ‘opt-out’ system means that in reality they can feel pressured to teach in-person, at risk of losing planned income or career prospects; they are also not adequately trained or compensated for the extra work necessary to make physical teaching spaces COVID-secure. As a combined undergraduate and postgraduate union, Cambridge SU represents all students and must advocate on behalf of those who are suffering increased risk as a result of the University’s current policy.


2. Minimising disruption


Within three weeks of students’ return to Cambridge, Homerton College locked down an accommodation block housing 223 students after 18 students from 11 households tested positive for COVID-19. With the number of cases rising both nationally and locally (and projected to continue rising for the foreseeable future), it is likely that there will be further disruption. In the event that the city, and by extension the University, was required to move to a higher ‘tier,’ face-to-face teaching would need to be strictly reduced if not cancelled. 


The shift which would be required to move from face-to-face teaching to online teaching would be disruptive for both staff and students who have adjusted to a routine. Considering that this shift is almost inevitable, arranging for all non-essential in-person teaching to be moved online as early and with as many prior preparations as possible would minimise this disruption. Otherwise, the shift will be last-minute and will require extra work from the staff who have already been shouldering a disproportionate amount of the responsibility for navigating the complexities of the current teaching situation. 


Another factor which needs to be considered is the likelihood that large numbers of students will need to self-isolate throughout the term and miss out on face-to-face contact hours, which raises serious questions about access to education. A managed transition to online teaching is necessary to pre-empt this scenario and force the University to dedicate resources to upgrading the quality of online teaching provisions. 


3. Improving teaching quality


The University’s insistence on encouraging face-to-face teaching has fostered two expectations: that in-person teaching is automatically of a higher quality than online provision, and that the University have taken enough precautions that large-scale in-person teaching will be safe and sustainable for students. However, as term has progressed and we have heard from more students about their experiences with teaching, it has become clear that neither of these is the case.


Firstly, in-person teaching cannot operate under normal conditions in the current circumstances. The University’s Stay Safe Cambridge Uni guidelines advise that masks are worn during all meetings longer than 15 minutes, even if participants are observing social distancing. Both masks and distancing can complicate the ordinary dynamics of the supervision room, particularly in the case of larger groups, by making facilitating and participating in discussion much more difficult. This can make the quality of in-person teaching very variable, and has been raised as an issue to us by students who have attended teaching in person.


Secondly, we believe that the University’s policy of in-person teaching as ‘default’ has unfairly raised students’ expectations for what can be delivered. Despite this policy, thousands of students already have classes exclusively or mostly online, as various departments have realised that online teaching is the only viable, safe option for the foreseeable future. An increasing number of students across courses and Colleges are unable to attend in-person teaching after being asked to self-isolate or locked down in their accommodation, and there are also students who for reasons of illness and/or disability who cannot, in the context of the pandemic, access any in-person teaching without putting their health at serious risk. The improvement of online provision is therefore vital to ensure that students are not discriminated against on the grounds of their ability to come to the University this term or attend in-person activities once here.


As has been outlined, it is inevitable that all students will have a significant online aspect to their teaching, and that problems will arise particularly as we all adjust to online delivery. It is the University’s responsibility to ensure that all students are able to access the best teaching possible within these circumstances, with minimal individual disruption during term, and with the resources, information, and guidance in place to prepare students and staff for the reality of this academic year. The student pledge is part of our ongoing campaign for the University to take this responsibility: to stop hiding behind a promise of in-person teaching that has not borne out in reality, and invest the effort and resources necessary to deliver high-quality, accessible online teaching, not simply as a second-best ‘last resort.’


How is Cambridge SU supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing?


We share students’ concerns about mental health and our top priority as an SU is to ensure that concrete steps are taken to mitigate the disruption of COVID-19 and support student wellbeing. While we appreciate that some students feel in-person teaching is one of few opportunities for social contact this term, we also believe students should not have been put in a position where their wellbeing is so dependent on a few in-person contact hours which are always vulnerable to cancellation due to COVID-19 infection or exposure. We believe that institutional support for the development of social communities within course cohorts is an integral part of high-quality educational provision, online or otherwise; and that an essential part of a managed transition to online teaching and learning is the facilitation of online, course-based academic and social communities.


As our #DemandSafeCambridge campaign sets out, we also want this transition to coincide with greater facilitation of safe socialising and working/studying more broadly. We have been working hard for the last few months to lobby the University and Colleges, urging them to take responsibility for students’ welfare. Here are some of the things we’ve been doing to protect student wellbeing as part of the campaign:


  • Lobbying the University for a testing programme earlier in the summer

  • Advocating for students’ interests in the roll-out and implementation of the University’s Asymptomatic and Symptomatic Testing Programmes 

  • Working closely with J/MCRs to help them advocate for better provision in their own Colleges

    • Organising regular meetings 

    • Providing information, statements of support, advice, and resources to aid lobbying 

    • Collaboratively working to secure safe socialising and working spaces in colleges (e.g. the provision of marquees or the opening up of alternative safe study spaces) and convince colleges to adopt a wellbeing-focused approach to student discipline, rather than adopting a punitive system.

  • Running welfare drop-in sessions for isolating students

  • Working closely with the Advice Service and Liberation Campaigns to keep tabs of the issues that students are facing so as to work on implementing solutions and improving provision 

  • Facilitating this term’s elections for academic reps and planning to support them to build course and subject-based communities that don’t rely solely on physical presence within the faculty

  • Holding regular meetings with elected reps and student groups across the University to offer support and advice as well as gather concerns and feedback

  • Responding to the numerous individual communications that we receive from students


You can always contact us with any thoughts, questions or concerns via email or our social media. We have individual addresses and accounts which can be found on our SU website, or you can email all of us at sabbs@cambridgesu.co.uk 


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