Is Distance Learning an Effective Substitute for In-Person Teaching?

When buildings were shut and access to classrooms prohibited for the majority of educators and students due to the unprecedented global health pandemic, there was little choice but for those educators who could, to take the plunge and move their learning online. 

For many, this was a step into the unknown, something which had been spoken about in hushed tones in the corners of the staff room. There were those that could and did, and those that couldn’t and therefore didn’t. Now, we were all suddenly thrown into the same boat and the cyber surf was choppy.

At the time of the shutdown however, at Cambridge Seminars College we were already well on the way to integrating our virtual learning platform into our everyday academic and pastoral life. This process had been accelerated by the pre-lockdown guidance on self-isolation, with tutors and students who would previously have come in with minor sniffles or barely noticeable temperatures now quite rightly staying at home. As our Foundation courses are intensive, students and tutors were both delighted to be able to connect remotely under these circumstances, even if the half in, half out classroom resembled a bad 80s pop video. 

The full lockdown and closure of the building actually brought a little clarity and allowed us to focus on fully transitioning to remote live learning. . 

Of course, like all education providers at this time, such a sudden and enforced change brought many challenges. Solving some of these, grappling with others and managing the move to deliver full-time distance learning courses has furthered our  belief that it is actually the integration of e-learning with in-person teaching that will best meet the varying needs of students and staff: our perspective is that e-learning is not a temporary substitute to be thrown out with the bathwater post lockdown, but rather a complementary resource which can help us extend the range, quality and quantity of learning. Our ‘new normal’ will continue to integrate the online experience into our courses to enable students to receive a continuous, bespoke and comprehensive education regardless of their physical whereabouts – this is more than just a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

How do we currently deliver lessons online?

There are many options available but we chose Google Classroom as our virtual learning hub. People are familiar with the systems, and it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. When new students and staff join Cambridge Seminars College they are inducted through our G-Suite and connected to online classes for each of their subjects. This is very useful in a tutorial college where the students are predominantly international and may not all arrive on the same day. The online classroom platform enables staff to share materials and set assignments for students, who in turn can submit work and communicate with their tutor both within and beyond the lesson. With materials and content created, delivered and sequentially stored on the platform, we have been able to help students who have started late or missed tuition through unexpected travel or quarantine to catch up with any missed classes in their own time and at their own speed. 

Furthermore, Google Hangouts provides us with the ‘live’ interface for lessons to be delivered, much like Zoom or Skype.  This links into the Google Classroom and Calendar, allowing us to seamlessly link content, live video classes, timetables and testing and performance tracking through one login. To see what these classrooms look like you can watch a lesson from our bespoke TRACES course, which offers training in study and research skills, and academic and cultural English.

How do we compensate for in-person interaction?

But is a college more than its classes? We believe so, yes, and this should not change or be neglected because of the move to online. It is vital to promote interaction between tutors, students and the wider staff team at CSC – beyond the scheduled lessons  – in order to maintain our collegiate atmosphere, reduce feelings of isolation and foster participation. It has been difficult enough for UK-based people during lockdown, but our students are often away from home for the first time, in residential accommodation and with no real support network. Normally, the college provides this and we weren’t going to let a move online stop us. We offer a variety of activities for all members of the college to engage in, such as team quizzes, creative drawing workshops, musical meet-ups, talent shows and online gaming, to name just a few.  

The student common room and staff room were moved online to enable students and staff to drop in at any time and connect more freely outside of scheduled online classes. This enables remote peer interaction over a virtual cup of tea and a place for staff to meet, share ideas, and vent about management.  

How do we address emerging needs?

Technical difficulties are, of course, one of the trickiest parts of delivering courses online, especially when students are based all over the world and internet connections vary considerably. However, we have seen that successful progress can be made by anybody studying remotely as long as they have a device that securely connects to the internet, a working camera and microphone, motivation and good time management. These are the basic requirements to enable effective distance learning. On occasion, there are interruptions in the internet connection, but we have found that most of our students are able to fully access the programme successfully and attend online classes consistently, be it from quarantine in a different time zone or student accommodation in Cambridge. 

How do we manage attendance issues?

Always vitally important, student attendance can still fluctuate whether lessons take place in-person or remotely.That said, we expected overall attendance to dip during the initial stages of the pandemic, especially for those students who travelled home to be with their families, were placed in quarantine, or had other external pressures due to the situation. We took the approach, however, that it was very much business as usual, and students were expected to ‘attend’ every class and if they were not doing so, we wanted to know why.

As well as asking tutors to email absentees, we also adopted a belt and braces approach and ‘dropped in’ on every class, every day. Although time consuming, we felt this brought us several advantages. Firstly, attendance was being monitored thoroughly, and being seen to be monitored thoroughly. Just because we were online we weren’t going to let our standards and expectations drop, and neither should the students. Secondly, students and staff were seeing and interacting with a member of the admin team at least once a day. This replaced the office/reception/corridor smiles, waves and chats and provided a reassuring continuity for students – the collegiate atmosphere was maintained, and students were reminded that there was a group of people behind this in addition to their tutors, and that they were there to help and support in any way they could.  Thirdly it allowed us to promote our activities, games and extra-curricula workshops. Emails and posts are one thing, but a friendly, in person cajole carries a lot more weight.  

In addition, we continued our welfare, academic progression tutorials and UCAS workshops, our feedback questionnaires, our student council and our INSET and CPD sessions. We have set up and invigilated secure exams, ensuring our Foundation students will graduate and be able to choose from a wide variety of universities. 

What we and all the staff and tutors have gained is a crash course in the wealth of features and innovation out there. And with necessity being the mother of invention, we have been adapting and using these in ways and on a scale we wouldn’t have imagined possible at the start of the year. When we do go back into our newly refurbished premises, we will put what we have learned to great use, enabling us to support and get more value from increased face to face interaction. 

There have been, and continue to be, difficulties and staff and students have been on an emotional roller coaster along with the rest of the world. But with our extra efforts and a desire to see this time as different rather than lesser, we hope that our class of 2020 will leave and progress on to university, but with just as warm memories of their time at Cambridge Seminars as every other year. 

Phil Scherb

Principal, Cambridge Seminars College

Posted by:

Jacob Klimaszewski

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