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The future is physical | The Star

IT’S been a year since the Covid-19 outbreak first became a major international story and educational institutions, from kindergartens to universities, were forced to move their operations online. So what have we learnt and what changes will be permanent?

> Online teaching That brief statement conceals the huge personal and technological challenges of lecturers switching from lecture theatres to bedrooms or kitchen tables and delivering courses to students spread across multiple time zones with different levels of connectivity.

Little day-to-day things like having a quick chat in passing and popping round a door with a question, became impossible as support services from libraries to student welfare moved online.

Without being able to check on students face-to-face, new communication networks were needed to contact and track students to know that they were safe and well.

Ways to replace practical sessions in science laboratories, training kitchens or performance studios became necessary.

Many courses require students to collaborate to complete assignments, so new ways needed to be found to support groups working remotely.

Then there was assessment and grading – how could student learning be accurately and fairly measured? How would changes in assessment impact bursaries, scholarships and other financial awards. What about exam boards and graduations?

As you can see, the situation was rather more complex than simply putting a few slides online!

> Recorded lecturesWe were already investing heavily in online technologies and equipment, but we had been focused on equipping lecture theatres with cameras when what we actually needed was staff members having their own portable equipment. We discovered that online can be as good as, and sometimes even better than, traditional lectures.

Many colleagues had already been using the “flipped” classroom approach where we pre-record lectures so our class time can be spent on discussion, debate and question-and-answer sessions to encourage higher order thinking skills and deeper understanding.

We found that many students actually prefer recorded lectures – a recording means students can pause to make notes, watch complex sections more than once, and generate transcripts to check spellings and learn new words.

More importantly, recordings mean students can learn at times that suit them and then revise whenever they want. This means recorded online lessons will be a permanent feature of university education in the future.

> eBooksMost universities already provided access to research journals online, but the transition to eBooks was for some reason slower – students seemed to prefer physical books and perhaps librarians really do enjoy refilling book shelves.

The sudden closure of campus libraries, however, meant that students were unable to borrow many of the books on their reading lists or to consult the very expensive reference-only books.

We had to buy more “copies” of eBooks because instead of two or three students studying the same physical book together, every online reader needed access to an individual eBook.

There is no limit to how many eBooks a student can borrow – they are accessible wherever the student is located, even when the library is closed. It’s easy to find the book that was missed in the first search, to cut and paste text, and to copy a diagram or picture into a note-taking app that’s available on any electronic device.

Any eBook can be automatically returned by the student or recalled by the library to be immediately available for borrowing again. eBooks are never damaged or dirty, new editions appear instantly, and all the physical space of heavy book shelves could be freed for other activities.

Unfortunately, the benefits of eBooks also come with higher costs because more “copies” are needed and instead of a single purchase price, there is often an ongoing licence fee and “borrowing” charges which often add up to more than the price of the equivalent paper book.

This means that library budgets will continue to grow but the convenience of eBooks means they are here to stay.

> Too much techToo much technology is simply too much to handle. When the MCO began, the number of apps and platforms being used online was well into the double figures but it soon became obvious that students and lecturers were suffering overload as they struggled to master the different tools. Some platforms emerged as firm favourites and others were discarded.

As the market consolidates, it may be harder for new platforms to emerge so innovation will slow, and there is a risk that our personal information will be controlled by an ever shrinking number of mega-corporations.

> Campus experienceWhen our university reopened in the second half of 2020, we offered online and face-to-face hybrid teaching, and a majority of our students came back to campus. We were amazed to discover that many students on campus were still attending lectures online.

Surveys confirmed that students wanted to come to campus, to get out of the house, but that they still preferred to do much of their learning online. Students valued the buzz of being in the same place with lots of other bright young people and the pandemic strongly underlined the importance of the campus experience.

Lectures may work well online but academic consultations, feedback on assessments and just being with friends are better face-to-face, even with masks on.

University is not just about learning a discipline, it is also about young people learning to be adults and that means being with other young people and being close to their academic mentors.

The campus provides a unique place where students learn to think critically and develop their intellectual independence under the guidance of their tutors.

The pandemic has unequivocally demonstrated how the campus experience is essential to giving our students the well-rounded education that will make them productive, healthy and happy members of society.

No matter what goes online, the physical campus is here to stay.

The 1,000-year-old institution of the university is renewing itself through great changes as we continue to invest in online technologies, expand our eResources, and adapt our teaching to maximise the benefits of these innovations. However, the pandemic has underlined the permanence of the university as a physical institution where the campus experience is just as valuable as it was a millennium ago. Let’s hope we’ll be back on campuses again very soon.

Professor Hew Gill joined Sunway University as associate provost after a successful multi-track career as an entrepreneur, United Kingdom politician and public servant, banker, senior business leader, and media pundit. He has served as a chair, governor, trustee and lay member at various educational, charitable and professional institutions and organisations in the UK, Singapore and Malaysia. He is an alumnus of several world-class universities including St. Anne’s College, Oxford University, Leeds University Business School, and the Derek Bok Centre, Harvard University. He is a frequent broadcaster and sought-after public speaker on a range of educational, business and psychological subjects. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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