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Virtual universities — University lecturers were hard hit by the switch to online teaching in 2020. International survey points to higher workloads for teaching staff, and a perception that online teaching is not sustainable.
It will be troubling reading for the world’s university managers struggling to chart a course out of the current crisis.
University staff are on the brink of breakdown after the switch from in-person to online teaching, according to an international survey. And they have deep reservations about the sustainability of a long-term online future.
»It is like a war zone,« one senior manager was quoted as saying in the so-called Digital Teaching Survey by Times Higher Education that quizzed university educators on their well-being in connection with the 2020-21 worldwide lockdowns of campuses.
»The majority of staff are in burnout and breakdown territory,« another senior lecturer in the social sciences, added. And »I feel like I’m cracking up with the pressure,« a reader in the life sciences said.
The survey was based on 520 self-selecting respondents from 46 countries representing all continents, and was carried out in October and November 2020.
Digital Teaching Survey
The Digital Teaching Survey from Times Higher Education found that:
· More than half of respondents say the initial move to online teaching had a negative effect on their mental health. Nearly six in 10 believe it hit their students’ mental health.
· Only one in five believe that their students value remote education as much as face-to-face – but less than one in three think tuition fees should be discounted when instruction moves online.
· Four in 10 junior academics believe their reopened universities’ planning for Covid outbreaks was robust, compared with seven in 10 senior managers.
· Less than one in five respondents consider a two-track physical and online approach to teaching sustainable. Two out of five regard an online-only future as sustainable.
Universities had previously been reluctant to embrace online teaching, and only 26 per cent of respondents had a ‘reasonable amount’ or ‘a lot’ of experience in online teaching prior to the first wave of the pandemic.
To deliver the equivalent of a one-hour lecture takes at least 3-4 hours for recording and uploading
This left universities reeling and off-balance when the first wave of the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, according to the survey.
While one senior lecturer in the humanities praised the heroism of their learning and teaching development team that supported »us from the beginning … introducing us to best practice and theory in digital pedagogy that we could apply at once,« others were more critical.
A social science lecturer complained that all of their university’s training was »focused solely on pedagogic ideas – for example, ‘you can embed emojis’ – with no step-by-step guidance of what to press, how to set up Teams/groups/online learning spaces. It was incredibly stressful, frustrating and demoralising.«
89 per cent of respondents said that their workload increased following the transition to online teaching – aside from commitments at home. This was consistent across all disciplines, regions and seniority.
I think they are trying to take advantage of university leniency with Covid. I have no idea how being ‘stuck at home’ could negatively impact on your ability to get assignments done!
Senior lecturer in business and management
A humanities lecturer said that »to deliver the equivalent of a one-hour lecture takes at least 3-4 hours for recording and uploading (usually in several shorter segments). With editing and captioning, it’s more like 8-10 hours. Seminars also require a lot more preparation. We have to spend a lot more time communicating with students and explaining to them how things work … When student services, registration, welfare and IT services get overwhelmed by the demand, the students come to their teachers or personal tutors instead.«
Support from institutions was minimal for some. A professor in the social sciences received »lots of encouraging words and links to mindfulness apps, but workload pressure has been piled on.«
51 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the initial move to online teaching had a negative effect on their mental health.
A social sciences lecturer suffered, for the first time in their life, anxiety and an eating disorder, resulting in several weeks of sick leave: »The mass uncertainty, lack of institutional (and financial) support, and increased demands [were] crippling.«
University educators in the survey voiced concern about students’ well-being. 59 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with learning being adversely affected by the digital switch.
Lots of encouraging words and links to mindfulness apps, but workload pressure has been piled on
A senior humanities lecturer became »a sounding board« for their students to »lament and/or vent. This took an accumulative toll on me over the semester and a fatigue that spilled into the next: something that management was not interested in hearing about.«
A senior lecturer in business and management was more upbeat however. Few of their students »fussed« and those who did »were weak students anyway and I think they are trying to take advantage of university leniency with Covid. I have no idea how being ‘stuck at home’ could negatively impact on your ability to get assignments done!«
In countries that charge tuition fees there have been regular calls from students to have fees reduced when teaching is moved online. 52 per cent of university lecturers disagree with fee reductions however, despite the decline in the value in the service that universities offer.
»I get that the quality of the experience is not as good,« as one humanities lecturer puts it: »but everyone has invested so much time and money in ensuring students get the best deal they can.«
The uncertainty of the Covid situation obliged many academics to plan and deliver classes both online and in person. 67 per cent, two out of three, were asked to prepare classes both online and in person ahead of the most recent term or semester.
after Covid: Which aspects of digital?
Are there any aspects of the digital switch that you think should be retained regardless of covid-related requirements?
Percentage of respondents choosing this option. Note: respondents could choose more than one option
Source: Digital Teaching Survey
But respondents were deeply sceptical that the workload associated with a twin-track approach is sustainable in the longer term. Only 18 per cent agree that it is, while 69 per cent disagree.
That the twin-track approach cannot work is confirmed by university educators at the University of Copenhagen who were interviewed for the Danish section of the University Post.
Workload aside, would it be a good idea to make the online experiment a permanent switch?
I am seeing staff falling one by one, and less staff means even more work. Students need more pastoral care now, but how can we offer this working until midnight?
Manager in the life sciences field
Asked whether, at its best, online teaching results in stronger learning than traditional teaching, 42 per cent of respondents are unsure. But more disagree (35 per cent) than agree (23 per cent).
When asked which aspects of the digital switch should be retained regardless of Covid-related requirements, 76 per cent point to online meetings.
The second wave of lockdowns is being handled a lot better by lecturers.
Three out of four agree that they are doing or would do a better job of online teaching during the second wave. A teaching associate in business and management plans »to adapt and be more creative, moving away from the standard content I am asked to deliver, so that it is more engaging and more effective for the students«.
In the meantime, if it is any consolation for the suffering lecturers, their senior managers are also feeling the strain.
As one manager in the life sciences field put it. »I am seeing staff falling one by one, and less staff means even more work. Students need more pastoral care now, but how can we offer this working until midnight?«