Online Teaching vs The Physical Campus and Future Trends in Higher Education

One of the topical debates in higher education has been whether the new academic year would be best served by online/virtual teaching or a return to the traditional physical teaching environment. This debate intensified last month when two of the leading HEI’s at Oxford and Cambridge took widely different paths to ‘unlocking the lockdown’.

Oxford University stating unequivocally that they had “every intention of resuming the life of the university next term with as large a student cohort as possible”. Whilst Cambridge released a statement that “Given that it is likely that social distancing will continue to be required, the university has decided there will be no face-to-face lectures during the next academic year.”

Ensuring that institutions can continue to provide the pastoral and well-being support will be key and it is unclear how this can be delivered online. With the prevalence of mental health problems and loneliness, it will be vital that student services departments can still provide an effective framework of support. Will international students still want to study at a British University if all teaching is online when such a fundamental part of the experience is making friends and becoming exposed to new cultures?

Higher education providers firmly believe that education should be delivered in a more cost-effective manner which could lead to an increase in virtual learning. John Fallon of Pearson told the Times in May that “universities will have to be less rigid in the design of courses and become more affordable”. His argument was that online teaching could lead to shorter degrees at a lower cost that will allow universities to increase their student numbers whilst providing students with the skills they need to flourish in the workplace.

We spoke with Ian Caldwell from the Higher Education Design Quality Forum (HEDQF) and former Director of Estates at King’s College London who has worked in higher education for over thirty years. He commented that:

“ Many UK universities were already well-advanced with strategies for digital teaching.  They could lead the way to a new world of learning and teaching where there is a partnership between digital and the physical and new forms of connectivity between a central campus and locations elsewhere, whether in a student’s home, a local community setting or another institution, potentially across the globe, while continuing to focus on carbon reduction.  

Looking back, we may wonder at a world where students were criss-crossing the world for a year at a time, when the 21st century digital world allows much more flexibility, where young people are now used to social events on Zoom, and where physical visits to a home campus could be shorter and more focused.   A key question, therefore, is what are the implications for the design of the future university estate”.

The role of Director of Estates will become increasingly important in the years to come and estates departments will play a vital part in delivering the corporate strategy for institutions. The profile of these estates teams will increase, and hopefully budgets will grow to meet the new requirements. Creating a culture of innovation and a willingness to adopt new ways of working will be the ‘new normal’ within higher education. Universities that can successfully collaborate between estates, student services and IT should thrive in the coming years.

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