27 August 2020

Returning to face-to-face teaching at universities

As UK universities now approach the start of the 2020/21 academic year, and planning for this is in the final stages, this blog looks at the implications for face-to-face teaching and practical content.

There is around one month remaining before around 2.4 million students from the UK and all over the world either return to or attend for the first time one of the around 130 institutions with university status in the UK.

Face-to-face teaching

Most universities are planning to offer a significant proportion of their teaching as face-to-face teaching (i.e. students and teaching staff physically in the same room) in smaller groups where social distancing can be maintained. This will be blended with a range of online, interactive sessions – typically where large lectures would be the normal delivery mode. There is undoubtedly a huge benefit to face-to-face teaching for both the lecturer and the students with a range of important peer and staff interactions taking place in the room. Lecturers gain feedback from students in the room to gauge levels of understanding (or lack thereof) and students can ask questions or gain clarification of important and difficult points and engage in discussions with classmates or the lecturer. How universities chose to deliver the balance of face-to-face and online teaching will vary depending on the availability and location of space and facilities (e.g. campus vs. city or both), the type of education it provides, the different programmes it offers and potentially local lockdown arrangements that may be in place. 

The student experience

Of course, being a student at university is not just all about education and universities work hard to provide an excellent overall ‘experience’ for its students which involves significant social interactions in the Students’ Union, bars, gyms, in societies, during sporting activities etc. This is really important – students need to feel part of a larger community and not isolated and unable to interact. It could be detrimental to students’ mental health being away from home possibly for the first time if they do start to feel unable to interact.

There have been well documented examples of COVID-19 spikes in USA-based universities which have lead them to shut down face-to-face teaching and move to fully online delivery. However, I don’t think we can automatically assume that students will completely ignore social distancing guidance, ignore advice to isolate for 14 days if they (and/or their friends) do fall ill (let’s ignore Freshers’ Flu for now) and within just weeks all our universities will be clamped shut and empty. This places significant additional responsibility on students, whether in large shared student halls or in private residences, for their own and other’s safety on and off campus, but why should we assume that they are not responsible adults? Is it likely that here will be some cases COVID-19 spikes and local lockdowns in our Universities? Probably yes. Apart from the reported cases in the US, a small number of schools in Scotland (which reopened in mid-August) have seen coronavirus cases in children and staff and this includes in primary schools where pupils do not share large teaching rooms and teaching staff do not teach across multiple cohorts. We wait to see how the return to schools in England, where COVID-19 is more prevalent than in Scotland, pans out. Coming back to ‘Freshers’ Flu’ – could this, and a general increase in colder weather illnesses, cause an increase in risk of infection? Possibly as there will be more coughing and sneezing going on and therefore heightened chances of transmission. Anyone with any experience of university lecturing in the first month of the Autumn semester will have experienced unpleasant ‘Freshers Flu’ symptoms and lecture rooms full of coughing students and corridors full of coughing staff. It is also important to consider how new and returning students and staff involved in teaching feel about returning to university. Some/many may well be very nervous of the prospect of a significant amount of their day (and evening) involving interacting with individuals or groups, be it in lecture rooms or halls or shared houses, after months of little or no contact beyond close family. 

Laboratory teaching?

One fundamentally important aspect of teaching materials science, engineering, technology and related subjects is the development of key practical, hands-on skills and the associated proficiency in data handling, analysis and presentation. This is important for the accreditation of engineering or technology degree programmes as well as having an important pedagogical function, for example for giving context to the theory provided in the lectures, for building experimental design and practical skills in readiness for student placements and for graduate positions or for further study (PhDs). Laboratory work is incredibly varied and involves students, demonstrators, technical staff and lecturers working in indoor, ‘space-efficient’ laboratory environments which may consist of clean room activities, wet chemical handling, sample preparation, materials characterisation, mechanical properties testing etc., but also includes computer labs for data processing or materials modelling and simulation and report writing. In any given normal week, a student on a Materials course may be timetabled to spend time in all these environments. Additionally, many individual and group projects will require access to laboratory facilities. The question remains as to how universities can deliver laboratory-based sessions and activities in the current pandemic.

Possibilities may include:

  • Running repeat lab sessions many times with small fixed groups depending on the number of students that can fit into a lab and maintain social distancing.  Inevitably this places more time demands on technical and teaching staff and issues around timetabling and how changeover procedures (including cleaning surfaces and equipment – microscope eyepieces etc.) are managed. Arrangements will need to be in place for entrances and exits, moving along (possibly narrow) corridors, breakout areas, rest areas etc.
  • Recording laboratory experiments in advance for students to view on demand or running live remote online laboratories (perhaps by a skilled demonstrator operating the equipment following instructions from the students).  Whilst this will not allow for students to develop specific skills with the equipment, the emphasis can be placed on data analysis and presentation.  The additional advantage of this approach is that could work for vulnerable/self-isolating students or international students unable to travel and can be quickly adopted in the case of a local lockdown. There is, however, the inclusivity issue to be considered - some students may not have access to the required IT equipment (how much data analysis or report writing can one do on a phone?) and there could be an issue with insufficient proprietary data analysis software licences. 
  • There are lots of other considerations relevant to laboratory teaching. Some include allocation of normally shared safety equipment, procedures for use of shared lockers, the most appropriate PPE for students and technical staff/demonstrators, so we retain a safe environment but still allow students to ask questions and understand safety instructions, what happens if staff are unable to work due to illness or shielding etc. 

Just like delivering face-to-face seminars or tutorials, the exact arrangements for laboratory and practical sessions will depend on the programme, the facilities, availability of staffing, possible local social distancing arrangements etc. Compared to tutorials and seminars – which could be quickly and relatively easily shifted to fully online live interactive sessions if government guidelines change – laboratory-based sessions are possibly more complex to coordinate and deliver effectively, either as face-to-face or remote sessions. Arguably, though, laboratory teaching should absolutely be prioritised above all other face-to-face contact for materials science, engineering and technology subjects.

Simon Hogg, IOM3 Strategic Advisor