It has been a while since I last wrote a blog post – the inevitable consequence of the start to the new academic year in a new institution perhaps, not least one coping with the challenges we all face in this pandemic age. As we work our way through I want to reflect on challenges to date and into the future but also ask questions about social responsibilities beyond the confines of the campus.
Universities are frequently in the headlines at the moment, and rightly so. They play a major role in society and as even a swift glance at a COVID map will show you cases spiked in correlation with the movement of students to universities. Don’t blame the students, they just want to get on with their lives and take up the opportunities afforded to them. Media narratives are not always entirely helpful though. I am not saying we should be quiet about what is happening in UK Higher Education right now. I am advocating quite the opposite. We really should but I’ve lost count of the number of times I have read articles alluding to the fact that at many institutions students are ‘only getting online tuition’ implying that this is automatically lesser. It isn’t. Ask any OU graduate if they felt remote learning held them back, and I suspect the answer will be no. All forms of teaching have their constraints and limitations. Yes, in the longer term I prefer being in the classroom, I have been critical of aspects of online teaching on this very blog, but in a pandemic online is the way to go. As one finalist put it recently, ‘I’d prefer face-to-face teaching but right now online is safer.’ Narratives that imply online is lesser not only have the potential to undermine the students and their learning, the staff and their teaching, they also help construct a perceived hierarchy in which face-to-face is seen as superior and worth the money and online is bad value. This, in turn, creates potential division in the few UK Higher Education institutions where hybrid, also known as hi-flex models of teaching, have been adopted but where some staff have no choice but to teach online due to health reasons. Moreover, it entirely overlooks questions of social responsibility in a global pandemic, and in a country in which the government’s handling of the crisis continues to be diabolical.
The Christmas ‘travel window’ brought student movement and COVID back into the headlines. According to current government guidance students are asked to wait until the current lockdown has been lifted so as to ‘reduce any transmission risk’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-reopening-buildings-and-campuses/student-movement-and-plans-for-the-end-of-autumn-2020-term). That is all reasonable enough, even if a lot of the government advice is contradictory; being allowed to travel for ‘educational purposes’ as even the current lockdown restrictions permit, for example does not make any of us immune to the virus, the virus does not give one jot about your BA, BSc, MA, MSc, DPhil, PhD – or even you – it is a virus, it kills and it needs curtailing. It does not care about human behaviour but it is human behaviour, coupled with scientific developments, that will bring it under control eventually.
Let us remember that the Spanish Flu pandemic had three waves, the second of which was the deadliest, with the total global death toll estimated to be up to one million of the world’s population. Currently, the UK looks set to have a further lockdown in January to allow Christmas to ‘happen’, entirely obfuscating the fact that for many Christmas is not just any day but a stark reminder of the fact their loved ones will see no more Christmases because of COVID-19. So whilst news of the travel window for students makes headlines, it also obscures and detracts from the very necessary question of how insistence on offering a hybrid model of teaching, combining simultaneous face to face and online classes, even during a national lockdown, is both contributing to the spread and perpetuating the life cycle of COVID-19. It is something no one seems to be talking about publicly but both government guidelines allow for and some universities insist upon continuing with it, citing government guidance. The rules may allow for travel for educational purposes but that does not mean it is the right thing to do for the students, staff and the societies in which we live and whom universities serve. There is a need for social responsibility at all times but never more so than during a global pandemic but whether all universities are heeding social responsibility is a question that needs exploring further.
If we look at this for a moment from the point of view of staff travel to universities, we can see how the hybrid model contributes to the potential spread of COVID-19 well beyond the confines of any ‘Covid-secure campus’. My own situation is somewhat anomalous, I will admit, but not entirely unusual. Appointed only two weeks before the start of the new academic year, as is common in an age of casualised academia, I was faced with a stark choice – spend that time trying to find somewhere to live or prepare my teaching because there was not sufficient time to do both. Unsurprisingly I chose the latter. That meant that I had to commute over 200 miles each way weekly, overnighting for four nights in B&Bs where I came into contact with any number of people who may have come into contact with COVID-19. I had hoped to have time to find somewhere to live, but frankly there is too little time between teaching, meetings and marking to look for anywhere. I’ve only made a switch to online now – even if temporarily – because I’ve fallen ill with a viral infection – thankfully not COVID-19 but whatever it is is still affecting me over three weeks later. Once I am better it is assumed I will return to campus and to the commute. On a temporary contract I see no way of finding anywhere to rent because rental contracts are usually for 12 months and my original contract was only for 9 in any case. But even if I could find somewhere, commuting would still happen. As I ordinarily teach using the hybrid model how much am I being made to contribute to the life cycle of the pandemic, albeit against my will? Whilst my commute might be longer than average, but I know colleagues who regularly travel 50 miles each way from their home to campus. How much is their commute contributing to the spread and perpetuation of COVID-19, likewise against their will and every precaution? We can perhaps never know for certain but it plays on my conscience. I feel the weight of social responsibility.
When we think about the impact of COVID on our campuses , our students and staff, we tend to only think of it in terms of the direct impact of the virus. Yet, COVID has changed how we are doing things and no workplace or occupational health assessment I have experienced is structured to take that into account. Classrooms have been set up with all kinds of tech, but the set up does not necessarily take into account the users of that tech, specifically the teaching staff. Ergonomically, the hybrid classroom offers plenty of potential for hazards -from equipment that is positioned so the user has to twist one way and then another between monitor and microphone or camera, to desks that are too low, leading to awkward bending and back strain, through to huge screens that are mounted above tiny desks, meaning that any user has to come far too close to the screen every time they want to use the keyboard. There are also other unseen, perhaps invisible risks. I have hypermobility, which in essence means I am more flexible than average. This can have its advantages. If I have an accident, say a fall, I am likely to have a lesser injury than someone who has an average mobility range. However, that minor injury will take longer to heal. Hypermobility can be exacerbated by a number of factors, high up on the list being stress and fatigue which can also lead to accidents. Hybrid teaching is, without a doubt, the most tiring teaching I have ever done, added to which we spend more hours preparing videos for pre-class preparation for example, so the workload level has gone up, too. Add in the stress of my particular commute but also the weight of social responsibility playing on my conscience, it really is not that much of a surprise that in Week 5, hypermobility struck again as I managed to partially dislocate my jaw, just by yawning with exhaustion. Yes, I got it back into place, took paracetamol and went off to teach, shock only setting in later. And yes, I am still affected by it, with further physio needed. The fear of it happening again also remains. Would it have happened if I’d only been teaching online? That’s something I cannot say with certainly, I can only speculate. Yet, hypermobility is not considered a risk factor on any COVID index I’ve seen – that’s not to say it is not, rather that is only something that may be discovered over time and yet even if the virus itself does not affect people with hypermobility directly, it does indirectly through the adaptions that have to be made to get through this pandemic. I would like to see a change in policy that looks at the range of ways in which COVID impacts on the way we work and the conditions we work under.
University management have their reasons for adopting the different models that they have. I am not unsympathetic to the difficulty of those choices, with finance likely being the overriding factor. It serves nobody’s purpose for any university to go under, and I suspect that is quite likely given the financial impact of COVID on the sector coupled with the lack of government bail outs. Yet, I still come back to the question of social responsibility and whether the insistence on hybrid teaching models rather than online is not part of the problem and one that will prolong it for longer. I do not have an answer but I would like to see it openly discussed and debated.