When we went back to in-person lectures in Autumn 2021, not everyone was ready to be back on campus. I decided to live-stream and record my lectures even though the mode of delivery was in person. I told my students that the online delivery was an alternative and that I would not be monitoring the Zoom meeting room. Initially, only a few opted to attend online, but as the trimester went on, students started to feel the pressure of deadlines and exams; meanwhile, the Omicron variant was threatening to arrive on campus. Then, there were more and more reported cases of COVID, and the enthusiasm at the beginning of the academic year was wearing out as we expected more restrictions over the Christmas period. At this point, the online alternative became a preferred option, however, the low attendance—both in-person and online—was worrying. But judging from the final papers, I was pleased that many did make use of the recordings.
After Christmas, some students decided not to come back to campus at all. Not all lecturers were happy about the low attendance and objected to the provision of live streaming or recordings. But students now had a different expectation and they pushed back on the proposed draconian measure of mandatory in-person classes. A student wrote, ‘there’s no financial or technological barriers for the university to offer online alternatives, so students should have the right to choose the option that suits them best.’ Another student stated that forcing students back into the classroom violates the principles of diversity, equality and inclusion, for many have caring responsibilities or mental and physical health conditions that would benefit from the online alternatives, while some are simply trying to save time and money spent on travelling and living in Dublin. In sum, the online alternatives allow students to participate who would not have been able to complete their college work due to COVID-related challenges.
Reflecting on my own experience, I would not have been able to attend many academic and professional conferences if they were in-person. While I sometimes miss the interactions at coffee breaks, online conferences seem to me a more engaging and inclusive format. As a quiet person, I am more comfortable asking questions using the chat or Q&A and l have also benefited from recordings. It seems to be a very retrograde exercise if we are just going back to ‘normal’ when the benefits of online format and alternatives are so clear. This is not to say personal interactions in a physical space should be abolished, but we might just need to find a balance and think about who would benefit from which ‘platforms’.
Can we say the same for higher education—for both undergraduate and postgraduate students? Should we just let the students make their own choice if online alternatives are here to stay? What does it mean for campus experiences if most students opt to connect online? University management may insist on in-person classes only for various reasons, but if we can see the benefits of online conferences and working-from-home, it is clear that inclusive practices should be continued. As one of my students said, ‘Collectively we have learned that the in-person only model is exclusive and ableist and we have learned that we can change that with existing technologies.’
I am all in for inclusive practices. The question is how? I live streamed and recorded my lectures with a big warning sign—that I offered them as alternatives in a public health crisis, that I did not design the modules to be delivered online, that I could not accommodate students attending online in class debates, that I sometimes worry about recording discussions of sensitive topics. Luckily, students were forgiving. Moving forward, the glitches and the gaps will need be considered and reconfigured. Surely there won’t be a one-size-fits-all model, however I feel strongly that students might have some very good ideas. There is no question that they are better at navigating between the physical and the digital worlds than a middle aged college lecturer like myself! We can’t go backwards to ‘normal’ when we have learned that more inclusive practices are possible. We just need to figure out how.