Remote learning has become an expectation.CREATIVE COMMONS 2.0

Part of the fun of going home for Easter is explaining C-Sunday and May Week to friends and family. Feudal-era traditions are absurd, offering the quaint sense of ironic joy that comes with retelling the hundreds of years that have led to you getting drunk in a field, or getting drunk in a park, or getting drunk across four courts…

This general sentiment that Cambridge is made up of its bygone-era quirks becomes a lot less funny when it involves changing student needs, being accused of plagiarising ChatGPT, or taking exams by hand – despite typing every single essay since A-levels. Feudal traditions have created the expectation that Cambridge doesn’t work like other universities do, and doesn’t need to change simply because others have. Change is often for a reason, and the University’s need to grasp onto ageing learning structures means that students are missing out on valuable education innovation.

Last week, the Building Bridges in Medical Science Society held its annual conference. It was really interesting, with the afternoon featuring a strong focus on what technology means for the NHS. The talks held a number of warnings, as speakers described firsthand what happens when the NHS drags its feet and continues to fax patient letters – until suddenly a pandemic meant that the system had nothing to rely on. But the NHS has learned, and hospitals are continuously “going live”: getting set up on new digital systems, including “virtual wards” which mean patients can be monitored and cared for from their own homes. This means that patients can receive care as it best suits them, costs are reduced as patients who don’t need around-the-clock care aren’t taking up shift time or bed space, and staff are (slightly) less overworked.

"The University has to accept that remote learning is here to stay"

Are you reminded of anything by these benefits? People have more flexibility to do what they need to do; expensive systems are able to cut unnecessary infrastructural costs; staff have more capacity to do what’s most important. Perhaps, digital learning structures come to mind. Online lectures mean that students can work from home, studying at times which suit them best. Infrastructural flexibility means negotiations can be made – I’m reminded of the 2021-2 academic year when Economics freshers were denied any in-person lectures because of COVID room constraints, rather than a flexible semi-remote system which could have meant every student could have at least some in-person teaching. The issue Cambridge seems to find with organising remote learning options effectively is that it means the University has to accept that remote learning is here to stay.

 "Students will find ways around what the university fails to offer"

In our first year, HSPS lectures were available online. I attended about 60% of my lectures in-person and watched most of the rest online. Digital lectures meant that missing one lecture in a series wasn’t the end of the world; you could catch up and go to the rest. In second year, the HSPS departments justified removing online lectures for most students because of a low in-person attendance. I can guarantee that my attendance since has been far lower; you miss one lecture, I found, and there was no point trying to go to the rest. They were a nightmare to follow as they involved rapid references to previous lectures which had nothing to do with the reading list, the slides of which were broad, artistic quotes from Hobbes. I found it easier to just read – it would have been nice to go to and really enjoy my lectures, but that would have required a military capacity for attendance which I didn’t and still don’t have. The faculty here failed to recognise that it can’t come back from the realities of the digital world. Remote learning has become an expectation, and students will find ways around what the university fails to offer.

A laughable open letter has come from the HSPS faculty recently, which pleads with students not to use AI because “saving time and effort” is not a “core norm” of scholarship. A degree which requires roughly 3,500 words a week, with around ten readings each, believes that “saving time and effort” shouldn’t be a student priority. More notably, though, is the fact that the email acknowledges that students will “live and work in a world full of AI”, before promptly arguing that university is here to teach students to live without AI. Here, again, is the assumption that the Cambridge experience is somehow inherently different.


Mountain View

The education system is broken and doing 28 A-levels won’t fix it

Within these aged, crumbling walls, students are special and should be prepared for a different world to every other student. While I’m not particularly a fan of using AI for my essays – it makes up reading lists and I trust myself more than I trust whatever data AI scrapes to judge actor-network theory or Marxist feminism – this argument implies that Cambridge is a place where technology should drag its feet. The NHS learnt the hard way that trying to live without technology means that you are left under-equipped to navigate a digital world. Perhaps Cambridge should take a leaf out of the NHS’ e-book.