Legacy of COVID: Empty Classrooms and Walls of Silence

September 12, 2022 Updated: September 27, 2022

Commentary

The image of an empty classroom, posted by Jan Slapeta, a professor of veterinary and molecular parasitology at the University of Sydney, is almost surreal. The professor posted the image after finding himself lecturing to an empty classroom as all his students were studying from home.

Reporter Sam McPhee, reporting on the image of the deserted lecture theatre said, “The work-from-home habits adopted during COVID lockdowns have lingered long after most isolation measures for the virus had been abandoned.”

Some people might argue that there is nothing disconcerting about the image.

Remote teaching has been going on for a long time, even prior to the pandemic and usually involves professors teaching in an allocated lecture theatre, while students have the option to either attend in-person or access the lecture from home—known as “hybrid teaching.”

But prior to the pandemic, this approach was used sparingly.

However, during the pandemic, the in-person approach was abandoned, and all teaching occurred via Zoom lectures. Of course, this was due to governments’ strict rules and regulations that aimed at eliminating or slowing the spread of COVID-19. But subsequently, “hybrid teaching” became a byword for remote teaching.

Professors now routinely teach classes with cameras turned off, and consequently, they cannot even see the students who are attending their Zoomed lectures.

It feels as if the professor is addressing a blank wall of silence, even when the professor invites students to answer his or her questions.

And I am not even talking about the valuable time often wasted by the lecturers, who unintentionally and frustratingly, try to connect with remote students and seek to master the digital equipment, which routinely breaks down or is unreliable.

Although most pandemic restrictions have been removed, the popularity of remote teaching remains undiminished. There are still university administrators and academics who praise “hybrid teaching.”

Specifically, proponents argue that students can save money on travel to the university or accommodation. They also argue that remote teaching provides flexibility and options to students, who are able to continue working while studying.

There are benefits for the university too: lower operational costs, reduced need to construct new buildings, and the possibility to attracts students from wide and afar.

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Students begin classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic on the first day of the fall 2020 semester at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Aug. 17, 2020. (Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

Yet, these arguments, regardless of their validity, fail to consider the true nature of a university “education.”

In his book “The Idea of the University,” Prof. Karl Jaspers, a German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher, argues that active stimulation of original inquiry through communication with others is an important function of a university.

If so, a proper university education involves communication between teachers and students, which Cardinal John Henry Newman called the “education of the intellect.”

In-person teaching also enables students to socialise with their peers and to hone their speaking skills.

In some courses—law is a good example—students learn best if they have an opportunity to contribute to—and profit from—debates on legal and social issues discussed by their colleagues and the professor. For them, opportunities to take part in scholarly discussions bolster their confidence, which is needed in their dealings with clients and the courts.

The in-person education mode also fosters an approach that makes it possible to work together collaboratively with other students to reflect on and propose solutions for the problems of today’s society. Obviously, these skills cannot be effectively obtained by sitting in front of a dull-looking screen, even if it allows limited interaction with the professor.

It is the interaction with the professor and their colleagues that sharpens the minds of students, moulding their character and professional abilities.

This interaction usually involves what is known as “Socratic teaching,” named after Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher who questioned his pupils to increase their knowledge and understanding of the world around them.

When Will We Begin Seriously Questioning ‘Hybrid Teaching’?

Hence, it is necessary to question the continuing reliance by universities on “hybrid teaching” as the preferred teaching approach. What is needed is a thorough assessment of the impacts of “hybrid teaching” on university education.

This assessment should exceed the mere consideration of the utilitarian advantages offered by this mode of teaching. Yet, whilst there is an abundance of papers on the practical benefits of “hybrid teaching,” there are few good papers in the relevant literature on the relationship between this mode of teaching and its impact on the quality of university education.

Epoch Times Photo
Professor Jan Govaerts at The School of Physics at UCLouvain gestures as he teaches alone in a small lecture theatre of the university at Louvain-la-Neuve, on the outskirts of Brussels on Nov. 3, 2020. (John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)

This assessment, however, should not overlook the fact that there are problems with in-person teaching. For example, undergraduate classes are generally large, and lecture theatres easily overflow, with students occupying and blocking the aisles.

It is often difficult, if not impossible, to sensibly contribute to discussions in a large class. Indeed, it may even be seen as an annoying and disruptive intervention by bright students who want to prevent the lecturer from speaking ex-cathedra.

In addition, an assessment should also extend to making recommendations about the design of lecture theatres, which often are not conducive to nurturing a stimulating discussion among the participants. Lecture theatres should ensure that speakers can, at all times, be seen and heard by other students and the professor. In this context, it is not surprising that universities stress the importance of small group teaching in their advertising.

The image posted by Slapeta succeeds in beautifully capturing the most important characteristic of the COVID-19 pandemic and its barbaric restrictions: emptiness. It shows how “hybrid teaching” contributes to total isolation.

But the pandemic’s legacy is that students have decided to stay at home rather than visit the campus, to access their lectures.

In doing so, they might get a degree, but they do not necessarily get an education.

Regardless, they are attuned to the appealing explanation that it is better to stay at home than to become sick in a large lecture theatre and make other people sick.

The question thus needs to be asked: why does the university system continue to support, unreservedly, a mode of education which erodes the very concept of “education”?

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published two novels “A Twisted Choice” (2020) and “The Coincidence” (2021).