What works?

This question is one that has been a central concern of this blog, even since we foolishly listened to Victor and Chad back in Albuquerque all those years ago. All of us, and all our contributors have written tens of thousands of words on how to make effective learning environments for our students, and you the reader have consumed hundreds of thousands of impressions.

And now we have a new contribution to that debate.

Last week, the UK government issued new guidance to universities in England [sic] about how to handle the current lockdown arrangements.

Reading this letter, and the accompanying guidance note, we might note a number of things.

Firstly and probably most importantly, the government doesn’t really know what works either: there’s some implicit language to suggest that face-to-face settings are intrinsically superior to remote arrangements, but it does allow that the latter might be got up to scratch.

Secondly, the government doesn’t really want to make the decision for universities about what to do, even as it tries to make some decisions. Yes, having large groups of people brought together is a bad thing for infection control, but not as bad as sending them all home again, so maybe keep up the face-to-face content to give them a reason to remain (even if that also increases the chances of further infections).

Thirdly, none of this is connected with the other restrictions on social distancing that are in effect too: as many colleagues are finding, running a seminar discussion with students spread out across an entire lecture theatre isn’t the most productive of experiences, for anyone involved.

To some extent, this all reads as if we were in the 1960s, with a student population almost entirely on-site and in far smaller numbers in class, rather than the massified model that we actually run in the almost-complete entirety of the sector (and even Oxbridge isn’t quite the chat-over-some-crumpets-in-the-tutor’s-office model it used to be).

But that’s neither really here nor there.

As much as it would be easy to mock this advice – and I’ve seen a lot of mocking (done a bit too) – that doesn’t really address the fundamental need to continue to work to manage and make the most of this current situation.

The difficulty comes from the various needs of government, institutions and individual educators: we all have different things that we need or value and it’s at points like this that the frictions between these become more evident.

Even if we can find specific adaptations to our work – and I’m deep into coping with a big shift of students from classes to online – that doesn’t necessarily create generic solutions. If I can’t find a model that works for both my classes this semester, why should a university – let alone a government – be able to.

And so we need to remember what we do all agree on: providing the best possible learning environment within the constraints we all operate under.

That requires us to keep on talking with each other, not only to explain what we’re doing, but also to understand what others are doing too. Flexibility to local circumstances is going to be essential to making this all work for any length of time.

And maybe we’ll get to something that functions as we’d all like before the situation changes all over again. Which would need to be soon, with the news that there might be the introduction of mass testing across the sector quite soon.