Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

Over the past year there has been a tectonic shift in the way that higher education is delivered. The move from classrooms to screens has been immensely disruptive for both students and teachers, revealing the severe lack of infrastructure in place that allows teaching to be conducted for students who are unable to attend classes in person. 

Despite the accelerating optimism that vaccinations will allow a slow return to pre-pandemic life as the summer months descend, the reopening of university campuses will certainly not be a priority. This means that many students may be facing another autumn semester spent behind their screens. This probability begs the question of whether university teaching will ever return to what it once was and, for some people, whether or not it should.

Remote teaching for many students has been monumentally problematic: exacerbating mental health issues, stunting motivation and emphasising digital inequality. For subjects that require more practical elements; a digital switch has proved to be an inadequate substitute. However, for subjects which predominantly rely on large lectures and independent reading, online delivery has not been hugely different from the teaching usually received by students in person. Refining of course content and online delivery is still essential, but it is important to remember that this academic year has been a complete experimentation. An era of trial and error in online learning has been tedious, but it now leaves us with the tools to cultivate and perfect courses with the aim of being delivered digitally rather than simply trying to mirror an in-person experience. With time and practice will come efficiency, freeing up more resources that could allow universities to support students at home both pastorally and technologically and make remote university enrolment a viable, and in some cases preferable, option.

Attendance at a university campus relies on the presumption that students are both financially and physically able to attend, outlining an ableism and classism that is systemic to higher education. Tuition fees aside, the average living costs per month for a student at the University of Edinburgh, for example, are £731. Evidently, this excludes a huge proportion of potential students. The opportunity that online learning suggests changes this situation somewhat. What if students could avoid these costs? If there was an option to receive a degree of the same standard and same regard without physical attendance, would students elect to attend remotely? As the last year has proved, an online university experience is not the same as an on-campus one. But have we considered that not all students want this? Or that not all students are able to have this?

Syllabuses have been revised, exams have been altered to test application rather than knowledge, lectures have been pre-recorded and re-used. Universities have shown (albeit to a limited extent in many cases) that they can be accommodative to students that are unable to physically be on campus. It is essential that such accommodations continue to be allowed for in a post-pandemic world.

Right now, we resent the switch to a digital world, but what would it be like if we decided to embrace it? There are so many gaps in our current virtual learning practices, but if given time, attention and resources, these gaps could be filled. We are still readjusting to these circumstances; we are still recalibrating to a more digitised world but there is immense potential here.

We should not unlearn what the last year has taught us about virtual education. Rather, we should use it to create a new opportunity in higher education for students who were previously excluded. We are so focused on a return to normality, but what was once normal is perhaps becoming outdated. Rather than lamenting remote learning as a temporary switch or a poor alternative, we should focus on what a digital transformation could mean for accessibility in higher education.