Swapping the metropolitan bustle of Oxford’s city centre for the stillness of the countryside that I call home during vacation has always been something of a shock. In a time long before Covid-19, I still recall the game of human Tetris in which I found myself trapped almost every morning whilst en-route to a far-flung lecture hall, darting past the slow-moving gaggles of students and groups of tourists that congregate on Broad Street’s narrow pavements. Hundreds, thousands of strangers heading to Oxford’s offices or shopping centres or museums. An unfamiliar sea of humanity, all going about their daily lives, and all a far cry from the fields and the lanes that surround my village, in which it would be highly unusual to cross only half a dozen people.
But besides these physical differences, perhaps the most important disparity between rural and urban life is one that, out of habit, many seem to forget: the Internet.
I should start by making something clear. Although the incessant jokes told by city-dwelling friends might lead you to think otherwise, present-day life in the British countryside is most certainly not as it was in the sixteenth century with people still making use of gas lamps and water wells. Indeed, for at least five years, we have even had access to some sort of fibre-optic broadband. In the most part, it might suffice for me to forget the previous, dark days of internet speeds that did not allow for as simple a task as music streaming.
Sufficient, that is, until the Coronavirus-fuelled advent of remote learning, and the video conferencing on which it is so dependent.
Even before becoming intimate with software like Microsoft Teams, I found that making meaningful videocalls from my rural home was intermittent at best, and impossible at worst. The experience was duly predictable and consistently painful. The Wi-Fi would be perfectly smooth for several minutes before suddenly cutting out and replacing my call with an obnoxious connection error message. After impatiently waiting the millennia for which the subsequent ten seconds of silence seemed to last, the call would reconnect, requiring a customary recap of “Where were we?” I would do my utmost to re-establish the fluidity and spontaneity that characterises true, human-to-human social interactions with the person at the other end of the call. Yet I’d still fear the sourly inevitable sensation of dread as their face freezes, and the error message returns.
Although understandably frustrating in a time where instant-access is the new normal, many would be tempted to write off my Wi-Fi woes as nothing more significant than a first-world problem. In the context of remote learning, however, even minor inconveniences posed by an intermittent internet connection can quickly become a major difficulty.
In this respect, Oxford’s tutorial system is evidence in point. What many argue makes the institution of the tutorial so valuable – the engaging student-tutor feedback loop of a fast paced, nuanced, and organic discussion – is the very aspect of University tuition most threatened by Wi-Fi disparities. When face to face, phone on silent, seated comfortably in the office of a tutor at Oxford, the only challenge with which students have to grapple is the intellectual one of the topic at hand. Conversely, the realities of remote learning mean that many students like me will be forced to simultaneously weather practical challenges such as connection lags, garbled audio, and momentary web blackouts. Even if not persistent problems, the effects of these challenges on processing information and contributing are nonetheless considerable. It is also worth adding that with an increasing number of British employees now working remotely, there will be a strain on the internet as two, perhaps even three, members of the same household have video conferences at the same time. This would be enough to test even the strongest of city connections – let alone weaker, rural ones.
Without doubt, the situation facing Oxford is hard. Hard, but not impossible.
With the subject of online learning receiving considerable attention for some time now, leading educators have had the opportunity to try, test, and refine techniques for effectively delivering classes from the safety of home. Amongst other factors, their findings concentrate on one oft-overlooked aspect of education that universities such as Oxford must consider in order to maintain the quality of tuition: namely, the delivery of information. The benefits of implementing their advice regarding the bitesize ‘chunking’ of content through multimedia-based, visual stimuli will help all students. Moreover, in the case of inferior internet connections, these techniques are even more relevant. Crucially, interactive tools such as diagrams, outlines, and summaries offer another framework through which students can make sense of topics beyond the traditional, aural delivery, thus allowing those with unreliable Wi-Fi to still engage with the most important content and concepts.
Covid-19 poses many unforeseeable challenges to the university sector. However, the creativity and flexibility needed to solve the practical problems of remote learning also constitute a great opportunity for improving educational techniques – be that within, or outside of, a lecture hall.