Interview: Don’t let digital investments dictate teaching policy, says President and Provost

Dr Michael Spence
Dr Michael Spence

UCL President & Provost Dr Michael Spence said the move back to in-person teaching has been complicated by huge costs sunk into digital learning, while speaking at the Reinventing Higher Education conference in Rome.

Universities must be careful to ensure their approach to blended learning is not dictated by the substantial investments made in digital infrastructure during the pandemic, UCL’s president has warned.

Michael Spence told the Reinventing Higher Education conference in Rome that many universities were currently assessing how far they should reduce online teaching - which, following considerable investments in digital learning in lockdown, was now easier to manage.

"It’s been a mad scramble in the sector [to meet] the demand [for teaching] in terms of having digitally equipped classrooms," Dr Spence told the event at the Luiss Guido Carli university, which was held in association with Madrid’s IE University and the IE Foundation.

"That’s been the case for everyone apart from those who have had gazillions to spend on this over the years."

University administrators faced a different challenge of ensuring that their lecturers did not tilt too far towards digital learning, which was not always preferred by students or able to produce the same educational or social benefits, said Dr Spence, who was vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney for more than a decade prior to moving to London.

On the question of how universities might achieve "digital maturity" in terms of improving online teaching, Dr Spence said "the challenge is not to be so quick with investments that it sets the parameters of your pedagogic approach".

"As we pull out of the pandemic this is [an issue] for a lot of university management," he explained.

While universities had done well to move quickly towards online learning during the pandemic, the "challenge for larger metropolitan comprehensive universities" was to articulate and build upon "what that comprehensive experience is" for students and what cannot be obtained in an online-only education.

"How do we make sure there is something important about being a campus-based, place-based community but also live that, as an institution?" asked Dr Spence.

While some benefits of the in-person university experience were easy to describe, such as extracurricular and co-curricular activities accessible on campus, or the social networks created by students, others were more intangible, he added.

"The pandemic has taught us - and students tell us - that listening to a lecture with others is different to listening to it on your own," said Dr Spence.

Lectures may also help students structure a weekly timetable that "linked to other things they did on campus", serving an important social function within the university.

"Students need an excuse to go to campus, which then helps them to go that club or meet up with someone else," said Dr Spence.

Dilly Fung, pro-director for teaching at the London School of Economics, agreed that this part of university life was, in many ways, one of the most crucial advantages that established universities had over cheaper online learning platforms.

"When universities can provide that slightly more traditional experience - that is very difficult for any new platforms or new companies to do," said Professor Fung,

Umran Inan, former president of Koç University in Istanbul, said higher education institutions needed to reassert the importance of face-to-face meetings because university teaching should be "an appointment between generations".

"Teaching needs to take place on campus with people rubbing shoulders, rubbing elbows - that is also true for research," he said.

"Many of us have viewed Covid as a demonstration of online learning but it has also been a demonstration of the shortcoming of online learning," continued Professor Inan, now an advisor to Koç’s board.

While he was not against videoing of lectures - which could allow students who faced onerous commutes to campus to avoid peak-hour traffic, for instance, or to recap content they did not understand fully at the time - the emphasis should be on face-to-face lectures and seminars.

"As academics, we need to learn from students too," said Professor Inan, adding that scholars did "too much teaching and not enough learning".

"As we come out of the pandemic, all classes should be watchable everywhere, but this must not happen at the expense of the physical in-person engagement with students."

This article first appeared in Times Higher Education on 17th November 2021.