Online learning was a disaster

“Yet Toope and the university superiors apparently didn’t get the message”Rebecca Tyson

After a long winter, spring has really woken up. Not only are the flowers out, but the masks are off, the sidestreams are in the trash and, most importantly, the jabs are in the arms. The pandemic is almost over.

Yet Toope and the University’s superiors apparently didn’t get the message. During Lent and St. Michael, when the number of cases was even lower than it is now, I can count the number of in-person practicals I had on both hands, and the state of the lectures wasn’t much better either. While a number of conferences were in person, online conferences were still taking place, creating a hodgepodge that made it nearly impossible to adopt a structured and consistent routine. And the strikes have further aggravated this problem.

“It is clear that this inaction is not mere bureaucratic lethargy”

I will concede that some restrictions on in-person activities were a necessary evil throughout 2020 and into 2021. However, from the very beginning of my time here, the University has taken an awkward approach. Before I even set foot in Cambridge, the University announced that all face-to-face lectures would be moved online for the entire academic year. Not a single other Russell Group university has pursued such an extreme policy. And while we were reassured that this policy would not affect labs or supervisions, all of the scheduled labs I had last year have been moved online.

Three vaccinations later, and the situation is still not much different for us Natscis. It is clear that this inaction is not mere bureaucratic lethargy, for if it were, the University would not be making efforts to test cumbersome online exam systems next term.

While it is clear that the threat posed by Covid-19 is now minimal, the University is making every effort to put most first and second year exams online. Curiously, most (but not all) third and fourth year exams were spared by this treatment. It seems that the only justification for this discrepancy is that it is part of a larger plan to end all online exams permanently.

“There is no reality in which online exams adequately replace in-person ones”

Indeed, much of the material we received regarding online exams highlights the “many benefits” of the new Inspera platform. But frankly, no matter how much marketing material the University tries to shove down our throats, there’s no reality where online exams are a proper replacement for in-person ones.

Completely unnecessary efforts to move exam proctoring online have resulted in the Orwellian mess that is the Inspera platform. Even the cumbersome photo ID verification required before taking exams on the platform is rather tame compared to monitoring your every move through your webcam. This huge hassle and blatant invasion of privacy could easily be avoided if we just took the exams in person.

And that is the real disaster of online learning. University management got it wrong that online learning can Actually to be a suitable replacement for – and in some cases better than – his in-person counterpart. They believe that during the pandemic they saw the future and it worked. But it never really worked.

From the few bits of in-person learning that I enjoyed, I came to realize what we were deprived of last year and what the University continues to deprive many of us of. During my very first in-person lab session earlier this year, I was introduced to someone with whom I have since maintained a good friendship. And through them, I was introduced to a completely different group of people who I now also count among my friends. If you extrapolate that to the entire university, you realize what a monumental calamity the pursuit of online learning has been. It was not just potential friendships that were lost, but also business ventures, research projects, and even love. The development of society depends on our ability to have these chance encounters with people who have common interests – and this is what the University has sociopathically suppressed.

The social and academic spheres are therefore not as separate as the mandarins in charge would like to think. But even if we leave aside the social considerations, it is still totally illusory to believe that online learning offers teaching as effective as the in-person alternative. Watching a poor graduate lab assistant awkwardly explain how to use a vacuum desiccator at 2x speed has never been and will never be equivalent to using one yourself.

For many universities, including Cambridge, going online has been very convenient. This allowed them to cut the extra costs associated with teaching STEM subjects, which typically exceed tuition fees, and then make further cuts across the board. It’s very ironic that Toope and his colleagues like to talk about preserving “academic rigor,” but in their pursuit of meticulously balanced budgets, they themselves have become the primary threat to what they wish to preserve.

Addendum: Just as I thought the University couldn’t make things worse, they’ve managed to make things worse quite impressively. The morning before this article was published, I received an email from my DoS explaining that he had been informed that the exams were to take place in person but still using our own laptops and on the same platform Clumsy Inspera.

This is, quite frankly, the worst of all worlds and speaks to an unacceptable disconnect between the University bureaucracy and the students it is meant to serve. To launch this change on us less than a month before the exams is simply breathtakingly incompetent: it would not be acceptable in a primary school, let alone the University of Cambridge.

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