Understand blended learning yet? Where are you on the big ‘Teams vs Panopto’ debate? And how many times have you used the phrase ‘asynchronous learning event’ in the last two months? subtext‘s correspondent has tried to navigate the maze of buzzwords, so you don’t have to.

While the May 2020 paper Academic Delivery in 2020/21 and Beyond, produced by the ‘Bronze Assessment & Teaching Team’, offers the vision of a University switching, maybe several times in one term, between ‘multiple operating modes’, the June 2020 document Minimum Expectations for Teaching Events 20/21, signed off by Prof Maria Piacentini, makes it clear that, as far as our planners are concerned, we should focus on an all-online academic year.

According to the May paper, there will be three modes: ‘normal operating conditions’ (unlikely, in the first term at least); ‘social distancing imposed’ (which would mean the end of face-to-face lectures, but hopefully keep seminars and tutorials going); and ‘face-to-face teaching suspended’. Assuming that some face-to-face teaching is possible, the highest priority will be given to science labs, with lectures getting lowest priority. Despite the stated need to keep ‘a distinctive Lancaster offering’, staff are being asked to consider how they could ‘streamline their current and future offerings’, noting that ‘opportunities for reducing the number of programmes or modules and sharing of modules across programmes should be actively sought out’.

Given that departments will have been advertising the courses they expect to teach for over a year now and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) takes a tough line when the ‘goods are not as presented in the brochure’, it seems unlikely that many courses could be ‘streamlined’ away, even if this was desired. A short summary of the CMA’s 2015 guidance to universities is available at:

The CMA stresses that, ‘before, or at the latest when, offering a place to a student, you must tell them of any changes since they applied and give pre-contract information which includes course information and costs, information on complaints handling, and any cancellation rights.’ Most of our applicants were offered a place well before COVID-19 hit and the CMA is unlikely to accept ‘but hey, virus!’ as a reason why a key course can no longer be taught.

The June document moves from generalities to a highly specific — teaching staff might say too specific — set of rules. We must develop ‘asynchronous lecture events’, made available ‘no later than the start of the planned lecture’, and even earlier where possible. Live-streaming of lectures is specifically discouraged; the ‘gold standard’ is apparently to split up a lecture into 4 x 15-minute recorded segments. If possible these should be recorded from home; recording from lecture theatres should be avoided where possible. Don’t think we can ignore the timetable, though, as we must also build in ‘synchronous discussion sessions’ at timetabled hours.

As several commentators have already noted, this plan would prohibit lectures being taught, live and online, with recordings made available immediately afterwards; a method which would be the preferred choice of some. Instead, we’re asked to adopt a method which doubles staff lecturing time (once to prepare an ‘asynchronous lecture event’ and once to hold the corresponding ‘synchronous discussion event’). A further issue is that ‘synchronous discussion events’ are supposed to be recorded for students who don’t turn up. Experience suggests it is hard enough to motivate students to speak in seminars even in precedented times; will they be willing to speak if recorded, and what do we do about discussions around sensitive topics?

Speaking of students turning up, apparently ‘any synchronous aspects will likely result in clashes therefore must be recorded.’ Why lecture clashes are likely is not explained. If we can schedule a full programme to (mostly) avoid clashes when we’re all attending in person, why would things get any worse when we’re all connecting via Teams?

Could it be that Lancaster is having problems putting a timetable together with so many staff on furlough? subtext readers have noted that on 5 June, a request went out to those who have offered to volunteer to support needy people on campus asking for help ‘supporting the timetabling process at the University.’ Apparently, ‘the Timetabling team have requested some support in liaising with faculties and departments to identify and understand their needs and feed these back into the Timetabling team for them to process.’ Sounds far more rewarding than delivering food parcels!

If face-to-face teaching is permitted for smaller groups, then ‘seminars’ must be prioritised for face-to-face provision, but no such priority is given to ‘workshops’ in the sciences or the arts. The distinction between a seminar and a workshop isn’t specified, and at this point a trunked mammal walks into the discussion – given we had difficulty scheduling all our seminars into limited numbers of flat rooms when it was okay to squash 25 into a room designed to fit 15, how on earth could we achieve this if restricted by social distancing to 6 or fewer per room? And, given that halving the numbers in each seminar would mean doubling the number of seminar teaching hours, who is going to be teaching these sessions?

For the arts, the prescribed solution is to get students doing their practicals at home: ‘departments may seek to enable the use of domestic internal and external spaces by individual students in which case appropriate consideration must be given to H&S and EDI issues.’ The idea of clusters of Theatre Studies students all practising out on County Square does have a certain beauty to it, although probably less so when faced with Lancaster’s usual winter weather.

Neither of the documents discuss the likely number of students who will actually be living on campus, because of course no one knows, but we’re reassured that we’ll still be offering ‘a college-based campus learning environment’. We can only hope that most of our students turn up in person, given that if they don’t, our much-publicised cash flow problems may go from being serious to critical. Fingers crossed.

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