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Perspectives on Remote Learning: Will the Pandemic Make Education More Accessible?

By now, students know that teaching in Trinity Term will be done remotely, which presents a different set of challenges to term-time in Oxford’s usual fare. It requires us to be in the Oxford mindset without – for many – actually being in Oxford, and also completely changes the logistics of teaching and learning at the university.

That’s not to say that the move to remote teaching isn’t necessary at the moment. In fact, it doesn’t even seem to be that the shift online has been particularly demanding or taken very long to implement. I think that we can all agree that the majority of discussion about next term has concerned exams rather than teaching.

Remote teaching will be easier for some subjects than it will be for others, depending on how much material is available online, but it should be possible to deliver at least basic content for every course during Trinity.

However, the quick and apparently pretty smooth transition to remote teaching does beg the question of why this kind of accessibility hasn’t been introduced earlier, if it’s not that difficult to do. While I’m not a student who would find education more accessible through remote teaching, I can understand why such students might now be questioning why these kinds of measures have not been put in place before. After all, what is the point of accepting the best and the brightest students if it means that those who can’t attend classes normally because of illness or disability still can’t? The only reason that I can see is an unwillingness to engage with the required technology until now, when it can’t be avoided.

Included among the students who would find remote teaching accessible are, surprisingly enough, a lot of DPhils. My research requires material that is kept in Oxford, but many of my peers in the History Faculty require resources that are kept elsewhere, even outside the UK. But, despite that, in order to be away from Oxford for any length of time, they have to apply for the residency requirement to be waived.

The remote teaching that is now in place seems to mark a change in both how education is delivered and attitudes to that delivery. We can hope that this remains the case once normal service is resumed. However, I think that hope is overly optimistic. My impression is that the technological changes are being made out of necessity rather than for long-term use. I’m sure that we all hope that things have gone back to normal next term, but I think that will take with it all of the useful changes that have been made and, for some students at least, it will leave a bittersweet taste of what might have been.

However, while I see the advantages of remote teaching, especially for students who find the normal delivery difficult or even impossible, I don’t think that it should be synonymous with accessible education. It has many benefits, but it isn’t actually an improvement on the normal delivery of teaching, and may even disadvantage more students than normal teaching does. Many, if not most, students at Oxford have now returned home, and for many that is in a different time zone, or in a home that doesn’t make for a good work environment, or somewhere without reliable internet or a computer capable of accessing the remote teaching on offer. The assumption that remote teaching is easy for us all to access undermines the image that the university has been trying to project of itself for many years – that we Oxford students are not all wealthy and based in the UK.

I have seen the benefits and the issues of remote teaching first-hand, having taught both in classrooms and online. When remote teaching works, it’s no different to teaching in a classroom. But when it doesn’t work, it makes the teaching completely inaccessible – which is exactly what it’s supposed to avoid. In its current form, I don’t think that the benefits that remote teaching affords to a few students outweigh the range of issues that it brings. And that is why it isn’t right to equate ‘remote teaching’ with ‘accessible education,’ at least not unless remote teaching is being provided because of particular access needs for which it is the best solution.

As I’ve already said, at the moment remote teaching is the only way that education can be accessible at all. However, once the pandemic has passed, if we want to keep education accessible then the application of remote teaching needs a lot of improvements. But a good start would be to keep it in place for the students who need it.