Moving lectures online will diminish the whole university experience and put staff out of work

In Australia, the reality is setting in. Reports today reveal that nearly 12,500 people have lost their jobs at Australian universities, according to the National Tertiary Education Union; that’s nearly 10 per cent of the workforce. These figures do not include proposed cuts or freelance contracts that were not renewed.

Already teaching staff are warning that they are being asked to produce more re-usable, recorded content, contributing to their own obsolescence.

Does it matter? Well, of course. A live performance delivered with only mild elan will always trump an online session which can be paused repeatedly or watched while you also play online poker, catch up on Instagram and post on Twitter. 

The online lecture series TedX Talks are great the first couple of times you watch but after a while you recognise the formula.  While some do stand out, many are tabloid in format, going for emotion, personal drama, self-help points and a crazy reveal at the end, before directing you to a link to buy a book.

There’s an alchemy to a live event – whether lecture or performance that is unique every time. The exact opposite of a recorded speech. Why do you think TedX talks are recorded in front of a live audience? It is to suggest that you are there, an equal listener and participant. Although, of course, you are not.

You can shop around if you want online lectures it is true but what’s the point in watching a Harvard lecturer talk economics in 2014? The world has changed so much since then. Academics may have the reputation of dust gatherers but all bring their lectures up to date. Even Beowulf has the potential for a topical re-reading in the light of Brexit.

Importantly, lectures allow the inexperienced but clever students the chance to get involved in a group of their peers too.

As Aaron Burr points out in the musical Hamilton, if you want to get on, you need to be in the room where it happens. There’s no value in shouting at your online screen or ‘popping a question into the chat function’. You need to be present to ask questions that matter and learn to debate. Learning to speak up in front of a large group of your peers to challenge an expert is a brilliant skill to attain and vital in careers from business to politics. 

Weakening the live link between students and teachers also does our academic system no favours. Many lecturers may dislike the public element of their jobs intently, preferring far the hours spent in research. But the rules of academia often demand so many hours lecturing or tutoring in return for the time spent in study.

Why shouldn’t academics earn a living – lecturers earn an average of £33,000 – while they also keep digging deep into our history, planet and literature? We all benefit from their cumulative work in the end. The vaccine for Covid-19 will come from research work which began life in a university. 

Online systems will have their place in student life post-pandemic, nestling in exactly as they are doing into all lives. But we must be wary of letting them take over like cuckoos, pushing out the human fledglings we need to nurture instead. 

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