How Covid-19 is forcing universities to change

Covid-19 has compelled history departments in UK universities to radically alter their teaching methods. Richard Toye explores the challenges that online teaching poses and how they can be overcome

Covid-19 saw the UK’s universities, such as the University of Glasgow (above), cancel in-person teaching. The logistics of teaching and studying during the pandemic are proving complex. (Photo by Dreamstime)

What does the Covid-19 pandemic mean for those studying and teaching history at universities? What challenges does it present for academics and students? How successfully can these challenges be met, and does the crisis present any new opportunities? And can history itself teach us any lessons about how to understand what we have experienced during these complicated times? 

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First, let’s consider what new and returning students can expect when arriving at university this autumn. The honest answer is that it is likely to be disorienting. When lockdown hit in the spring, academics did a brilliant job of making classes online at speed. But the crisis has had a big financial impact on universities, for instance through loss of rents from halls of residence, and is likely to hit recruitment. At the same time, institutions understandably want to offer as much face-to-face teaching as they can, while maintaining social distancing. This hybrid model – part in person, part online – creates serious logistical difficulties. So universities will be trying to do something entirely new, with fewer resources, and there of course remains the chance that a second wave of infections will again throw everything into doubt. It must be remembered, too, that disadvantaged students are likely to be hit disproportionately hard by all the disruption. 

So the reality is that, at a minimum, there will be teething problems and likely a certain amount of confusion. On the other hand, compared to some other disciplines (such as those that require lab work) the study of history at undergraduate level does not actually require students to be physically in one another’s company. However, the closure of archives has been a blow to those who need to do original, primary research – particularly third year students who are writing dissertations. Some archives are now reopening, albeit with restricted services, but there will be a generation of students whose opportunities in this sphere will be much reduced. This is a great pity, as there is nothing like getting one’s hands on original documents to help inspire a historical career. 

Navigating the digital world 

That said, the range of electronic resources that are available today is extraordinary – although there remains a great deal that has not yet been digitised. And this does not just mean the internet, which everyone can access. Students often do not appreciate that a significant portion of their fees go toward paying for subscription-only databases, such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Early English Books Online. Together with the large number of e-books and journals that most UK universities also make available, this means that nobody studying the human past should want for the high-quality information they need. 

We should not, however, take it for granted that students are ‘digital natives’ who can navigate the virtual world without guidance. In other words, while lecturers are trying, in difficult circumstances, to convey historical content, they also need to communicate the technical and intellectual skills required to master electronic sources. Today’s technology, though a godsend in this crisis, cannot in itself solve all our problems – and can, in some instances, create entirely new ones. Online (or hybrid) teaching presents a series of social challenges that teachers and students will need to overcome together. The greatest of these is the problem of alienation: reduced human contact, and too much time spent in front of a screen, can sap the enthusiasm of even the most dedicated. 

Why is this? After all, certain forms of technology, such as smartphones and social media, are highly addictive. But no one has yet suggested that online meetings, lectures, or seminars fall into this category. A conventional university history seminar revolves around discussing the week’s reading, perhaps with some group activities and a student presentation thrown in. Sometimes it can be a struggle to get the conversation going, but at least everyone has the benefit of being able to read other people’s body language and facial expressions. These cues are much harder to interpret during a video conference, so simply transferring the seminar (or a part of it) directly online is a potential recipe for disaster. The students may be tempted to sit back, tune out, and hope that others will take the strain of participating. Remember, too, that they may be shield- ing, or have caring responsibilities, or perhaps just feel awkward about allowing strangers to see into their homes and bedrooms. Undoubtedly, large group seminars are a lot more difficult to manage than one-to-one student meetings, PhD supervisions and the like. 

Many university teachers have thought creatively about how things might be done differently. One proposal is the ‘asynchronous’ seminar, which means allowing students to contribute online comments, moderated by the lecturer, over the course of a week. This has the advantage of flexibility, which may be helpful to those studying remotely in different time zones. It also creates a permanent record of the discussion, to which students can refer back. Yet the lack of a fixed deadline – a particular session in the week which must be prepared for – may lead to procrastination. It may also be harder than usual to establish when students are really not coping. Non-attendance at standard seminars is always a warning sign, but how long does a student have to remain silent during an ‘asynchronous’ seminar before the alarm is sounded? 

The fundamental key to teaching during the pandemic will be motivation. We tend to think of motivation as the property of the individual, a sort of innate quality: “she is a highly motivated person.” But, as we have seen, there are many possible obstacles to staying motivated, including technological frustrations, family duties, and social isolation and loneliness. It therefore becomes the lecturer’s responsibility both to try to keep learners stimulated and to promote group cohesion, for example by setting tasks for clusters of students to carry out together virtually. Above all, it is important to avoid creating new barriers to engagement. Normal lectures can be split into bite-sized online segments to avoid the onset of fatigue. 

A fount of inspiration 

In the new term, I will be experimenting with what I and my colleague Warren Dockter (of Aberystwyth University) call the Continuous Engagement Model. Students in my classes will receive a daily weekday email from me with an arresting subject line. “My most embarrassing mistake,” for instance, could head up a message about how I misread a question during an exam when I was an undergraduate and spotted the error when 

I was halfway through writing the answer. I would then give tips about how to avoid this. Some days there will also be a link to a short podcast I have created – in some cases a discussion with a colleague at another university. The point is not to deliver formal curriculum content but simply to pique the students’ interest and make them want to learn more. The email will conclude with a call to action – “Hit reply and let me know what you thought about today’s topic.” I’ll try to respond to as many of the replies as I can, even if it’s just a few words of acknowledgement. The aim is to build a sense of connection, so that the students know I am interest- ed in their views and want to know how they are getting on. Additionally, there will be a brief weekly online quiz so that students can measure their own knowledge. 

Ultimately, students will be motivated by arresting content and important intellectual questions – as long as adjustments are made for the pressures of crisis conditions. For five years, I have been convening an online course for the University of Exeter, delivered for free via FutureLearn, called ‘Empire: The Controversies of British Imperialism’. The latest run secured 11,000 sign-ups, perhaps in part due to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as people having more time on their hands during lockdown. Consistently, we have succeeded in maintain- ing high levels of student engagement, as measured by the numbers completing all six weeks. This, I believe, is because participants are encouraged to debate a series of controversial themes: money, violence, race, religion, gender and sex, and propaganda. As the students inevitably start arguing with one another, they feel compelled to keep on going. 

To put it another way, the secret to online teaching, Covid or no Covid, is to make people care passionately about the subject matter. Let us hope that the pandemic comes to an end rapidly and that teaching can all be done in person again as soon as possible. But though much has been lost, the experience of living through coronavirus should teach history students an important lesson. There is no permanent condition called ‘normality’ to which we can hope and expect to return. Our everyday lives pre-lockdown may have seemed ordinary and mundane, but in fact they were the product of unique circumstances, and there is no law which says they must come back. We may think that safety and community are rights, but historically they have always been privileges. The destruction of our comfort zone should help us develop that most important of a historian’s skills: the capacity for empathy with those whose experiences are not our own. 

Richard Toye is professor of modern history at the University of Exeter 

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This article was first published in the October 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine