Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

For students another semester arrives, and with it the promise of more online ‘hybrid’ learning. While this has been widely criticised as a poor substitute for in-person learning, it has, perhaps surprisingly, also been lauded as being just as good as learning in a lecture hall. Citing its flexibility and the time and money saved on commuting to lectures, to many the advantages of online learning outweigh its inconveniences, even despite the baggage of technical problems that come with it.

While this has been widely criticised as a poor substitute for in-person learning, it has, perhaps surprisingly, also been lauded as being just as good as learning in a lecture hall. Citing its flexibility and the time and money saved on commuting to lectures, to many the advantages of online learning outweigh its inconveniences, even despite the baggage of technical problems that come with it.

While not denying those advantages, online leaning is no equivalent to in-person teaching, only offering a meagre fraction of what students were told it would. Online learning is becoming increasingly redundant; there’s no need for students to be shafted more than they already were. Nobody doubts that that given the force of circumstances of the pandemic, moving university online was an appropriate response, nor that many lecturers have done their upmost to adapt to the situation. But that does not mean that online learning should be kept beyond what is absolutely necessary.

Put simply, the central problem of online teaching is that it estranges students from the educational community they are a part of. The lecturer on a screen is hardly there, and combined with a bad connection and buffering, the hour session begins to resemble having a bad TV signal – in the end one tunes out. By muting yourself, turning off the camera, not leaving your room, there is the sensation that the lecture, the course, and the university itself do not actually exist. Online learning does away with the theatrics of teaching, of someone being there, on a stage, being questioned by the crowd, to draw the gaze away from a Facebook feed of non-events and engage in a dialogue. Having to get up and leave the house allows for the recognition that the world exists outside the solipsistic echo chamber of the four walls of your room.

Fundamentally, online learning is a banal, boring response to the most boring disaster of our living memory. A friend of mine put it well when she said she didn’t bother watching lecture recordings because it was too much like watching YouTube videos. We cannot therefore be surprised at a lacklustre approach many students have taken to online tutorials. Students used to question the point of their degree prior to the pandemic; with a recorded video talking at no one in particular, the whole purpose of an education at £9,250 a year looks almost farcical.

Already many students hold the cynical view that their degree is the mere instrument to slide into a job. And if online learning is continued beyond what is absolutely necessary, the will and want to learn at all may dissipate more rapidly than it already is, ultimately producing an apathetic populace that cares for learning only insofar as it makes money. University education will appear as more and more like a scam, and the whole concept of a degree will become laughable.

But this goes beyond job-hunting for the future: the movement online redefines what it means to be social. Meeting someone online is one-dimensional, coordinated, controlled, shaped by the screen. Zoom calls are limited to 40 minutes to get you back to work or keep you paying. Someone seen through a screen is inescapably distant, the conversation is more awkward to maintain in such an alien medium. The effect is that people, too, become banal. We must log off before the cure for loneliness proves more fatal than the disease, and student life is forgotten altogether.