... feminist, atheist, autistic academic and historic narrowboater ...
Likes snooker, beer, tea, rivets and solitude, and is strangely fascinated by the cinema organ.
And there might be something about railways.

Monday 28 September 2020

Mad world (or, a collective action problem)

 Oops, it's been a while. I thought I'd better not let September go by postless, but what is there for an extremely busy recluse to write about?

Yup, the world is officially, outrageously, barnstormingly bonkers, and if the press is to be believed my beloved profession is at the heart of it. And I have to say there's some truth in that. On Thursday, if I can muster the courage (I have someone standing by to step in if not), I shall be back in the classroom. From having not been near more than one person at a time for six months (and that rarely) I shall be faced with fifteen of them, from all over the country. Then after an hour, another fifteen. Then after lunch, another fifteen. And then another. They will be sat a metre and a half apart and all wearing masks. We can't have any handouts or groupwork. They will get 45 minutes of this and that will be their lot of what we somewhat ironically call 'face to face' teaching for the week.

I have been fearsomely busy these last few weeks turning most of my teaching into online teaching. This has been really exciting and I - along with my colleagues - are doing some really good, engaging, imaginative and innovative stuff. My students will be getting better value this year than ever before, in terms of the thought and structure that we are putting into their learning and the amount of material we are pulling together for them. Online tutorials will be far smaller than conventional classes and each student will get more individual attention. The library is forking out a fortune for new ebook licences so that everyone will be able to access the books I set, rather than wait for someone to bring a copy back to the library. As at the end of the last academic year, the university is making funds available so that everybody has the IT hardware and online connection they need. So do not for a moment believe that online teaching is a cheap option, or that it is not good value. Do not think, either, that it is not good teaching. It is.

That is not, however, to say that students will have as good a learning experience (as the jargon has it). Of course they won't. You cannot reproduce online the buzz of a heated seminar debate, or convey the enthusiasm of a tutor leaping up and down and waving their arms around in front of the class; above all you can't create those tiny unexpected conversations which can open up whole new worlds. It won't be such fun. But we can still prepare our students to start a successful degree programme next year; the foundation year can and will still deliver on its promise. And - as I consoled one student last week - with any luck they get a second chance at the whole freshers' week thing when they start their 'first' year next year. 

But to get back to my earlier point - what I was trying to convey there was that while in many ways online teaching is no substitute for 'normal' face to face, it's probably a lot better than Covid face to face, with all its inevitable limitations. And that's just looking at it from a teaching point of view, without considering the other risks.

So why are we going to such massive lengths to deliver, at some non-trivial risk to students and staff, what is likely (although I must, I know, reserve judgement until after I have seen it) to be a less good learning experience?

The answer is that this is what we doctors* call a collective action problem. It's an absolute classic of the genre.

Back in the spring, students, applicants and potential applicants, when asked, said that they would like face to face teaching when they went to university in the autumn. Back then, we all had the generally vague sense that by now things would be more or less back to normal, if you recall, rather than heading lemming-like for the cliff edge. So why wouldn't they say that?

Many people counselled that it would be sensible to plan for entirely online delivery this autumn, to forestall the biggest internal migration in the UK. Many universities probably wanted to. But there was also a widespread fear that recruitment would drop very sharply across the board, increasing the pressure on each university to attract applicants, and that universities whose student numbers fell would have to close courses and lay of teaching staff - a position that they might never recover from even once student numbers (almost inevitably) picked up again. No one wanted to be that university. 

If some universities were offering face to face, and some online only, given what applicants had told pollsters, it was reasonable to assume that any institution that went online only while others were still offering face to face would be signing its own death warrant. 

Even if all universities wanted to go online only, no-one would dare to. That's the essence of a collective action problem. It's in everybody's interests to do X, but only as long as everybody does it.

But if everybody else does X then it's in any individual's interest not to. If everyone else is going online, then the institution that offers face to face is going to hoover up all the applicants. The usual way of addressing this problem is either for all the parties to come to a binding agreement - with some mechanism in place to ensure that they stick to it - or for it to be imposed by a greater power. 

Universities UK could have done the former; the government could have done the latter. The majority of universities would probably have been mightily relieved to have a level playing field on which to compete on the quality of their online offer. We could have avoided this entire mass migration of students, significant numbers of whom are already doing their courses entirely online but in what is effectively a cell miles away from their families and support networks.

And now, even now that the madness of the situation is staring us in the face and students aren't nearly so gung ho for their face to face experience, we can't back out of it, because the government has effectively told students that they can sue universities under consumer protection legislation if the universities don't deliver what was promised. We promised 'some' face to face teaching, and 'some' is what they're getting - and we're telling them that they have to turn up to it unless they've a good reason not to.

One of my favourite WonkHE bloggers has summarised it in a far more measured way here.

So yes, it is all mad, and yes, it could have been completely avoided, but no, it's not a conspiracy by exploitative money-grabbing universities. It's a collective action problem.

*of Philosophy