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Kellogg Fellow Shreya Atrey asks, "The future is here, but are we ready for Online Universities?"

May 20, 2020

On 20 May Kellogg Fellow and Associate Professor of International Human Rights Law, Shreya Atrey, wrote an article for The Guardian newspaper, an edited version of which they published under the title Universities beware: shifting classes online so quickly is a double-edged sword.

Read Shreya’s full article below.

When lockdown began, universities naturally had to shut shop, like all other non-essential services. But something extraordinary happened: universities around the world went online overnight, showing remarkable determination to continue providing their students with lectures, seminars and tutorials.

But can this rapid shift to online teaching and learning actually work in the long term? Several problems have already emerged. Online teaching needs more than just the basics. Lecturers need access to a computer that supports teaching software and a reliable internet connection. Meanwhile, for students, even basic hardware and software are far from guaranteed in many homes, as families share hardware and internet providers struggle with increased traffic.

There are also structural issues with internet privacy and security. Online teaching potentially exposes students to greater surveillance and unreliable data protection laws in many countries. Neither freedom of speech nor privacy can be guaranteed when students’ ideas and personal data remain unprotected. This is no small matter for universities which are meant to be sites of free academic discussion and debate. Online universities can hardly be free when internet itself is unfree.

The problem is exacerbated when universities rely on large corporates like Microsoft for online platforms such as Teams. Universities have little control over how online platforms are run and priced. In the overnight dash to online teaching, they have also shown little caution in both contributing to profit-making of corporates and compromising data to servers universities themselves do not control. Imagine students giving up their ideas and information to be stored at an unknown location and with little control over how they are utilised in years to come. Knowingly or unknowingly we may be contributing to what Shoshana Zuboff calls ‘surveillance capitalism’.

The hardware and software of online teaching are not insurmountable issues. But they do require some deep reflection and open conversation. Should universities invest in home-grown open source software? Can they provide foolproof platforms which do not compromise the security of students? Unfortunately, this conversation has been sidelined, even halted, by the rush to go online. But if online teaching has to continue beyond this pandemic, the conversation should be had. It should be a long-term commitment to continue to evaluate the workings of the online university, before we are deep into online teaching and learning which is neither viable nor pedagogically valuable.

Above all, we need to question the assumed pedagogic value in simply going ‘live’ on camera. Live online teaching and learning is hardly fit for purpose. On the one hand, it tends to replicate the passive learning environment of lectures. On the other hand, for seminars or tutorials, online teaching proves notoriously difficult in eliciting meaningful student interaction in real time.

We may need to reimagine instructional design to make online teaching effective. For this, we may have to get away from ‘contact-hours’ in lectures, seminars and tutorials which traditionally only span 1-2 hours. We can instead imagine online teaching as organising the learning experience of students at universities over a longer period. This could be done via discussion forums or weblogs which allow freewheeling and sustained conversation on topics between tutors and students.

On my own human rights course, we allow students to develop arguments in turn, like chain novelists, over a course of several days and across a range of topics. This process goes on for the entire length of the first year on the Master’s degree. Tutors act as moderators or enablers in this model and have considerable flexibility in engaging with students without being confined to class hours, but also having greater control of their own schedule and priorities. More time does not necessarily contribute to more screen time. Instead, the fact of being online allows more time to reflect and respond with sophisticated arguments than is possible in a classroom setting. The model seems to work particularly well in enabling deep thinking and in catering to a diversity of learning styles and needs.

In fact, the greatest value of the online model can be in diversifying and uniting community of learners. This crisis has shown us that online teaching and learning can take place remotely and across borders. It can thus help reach out to learners who cannot be a part of a residential university environment, both locally and internationally. It may help connect with mature students studying for the first time or returning to education to up-skill. It can even help accommodate persons with disabilities more appropriately. Most importantly, free online resources for learning can be offered to disadvantaged communities who do not have access to universities. Open and free higher education can be particularly constructive in tackling increased anxiety and precarity during this time. Cultivating healthy and curious minds may be no small a contribution in a public health crisis. But universities may find this to be a unique opportunity to revive their mandates for higher education as a public good in the long term.

Shreya Atrey
20 May 2020

Read The Guardian’s article here: Universities beware: shifting classes online so quickly is a double-edged sword.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Kellogg College or the University of Oxford.