Any grammarian worth his or her salt knows that the word virtually is an adverb, as in the petrol tank is almost full or, a little more downbeat, this university course is not quite first-class. Used as an adjective, a student might be heard to complain in this way: “My degree course is almost or nearly as described, but not completely.” It’s likely that we’ll be hearing many complaints of this kind if the example set by the University of Cambridge in moving all lectures to online delivery not just for the first semester but for the entire 2021/22 academic year — with no fee reductions — catches on.
It is, sadly, likely to. Most of the courses at McGill University, Montreal, will be online. At California State University (CAL) — the largest four-year public university system, with 23 campuses, in the US – classes will be exclusively online, again with no fee cuts. There might be possible exceptions for classes in its nursing programme and for science courses requiring work in laboratories as, annoyingly, they must. CAL’s chancellor agrees that it will be a “different experience” for students, but insists that it will not be a “bad” experience. As ever, when in search of optimism, if not positive spin, look to California.
Online technology such as Zoom and Skype has provided enormous value for people prevented from getting out and about in recent months, and will continue to do so. For older generations connected to their families at home and abroad, it has provided small relief from being unable to meet them in person. It has enabled many organisations to carry on functioning during the Covid-19 lockdown. However, to perceive or promote it as an equal match for the real thing — be it a museum tour, a concert, an art exhibition, business meeting or negotiation, a court hearing, or a university lecture, seminar, and tutorial — ought to be resisted. Links can be marred by weak internet connections and users hitting the wrong keys. In the university context, when every word should matter, it is hard to see how disembodied voices, frozen computer screens and varying audio quality could provide a seamless third-level education. Though there may be fewer pubs open when university resumes, there will be everyday noises off screen and interruptions to distract students.
Academics are right to champion the teaching method established under the Athenian sun by Socrates and Plato, and to insist that the lecture hall or tutorial study can never be replaced satisfactorily by a laptop screen.
Faced with the prospect of handing over thousands of euro, pounds and dollars for being taught on Zoom, many students might think it worthwhile deferring their enrolment until universities — and the very brainy people they employ — have worked out a way to adapt their halls and rooms to comply with physical distancing.
Others might instead decide that, in 2020, with third-level opportunities theoretically available to all, it’s possible to get what they need virtually and by poring over books. Whether it provides the best solution in these difficult times? That’s something for college administrators and teachers to discuss, if they must, virtually.