How Covid-19 Is Forcing Universities To Change
BBC History Magazine|October 2020
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How Covid-19 Is Forcing Universities To Change
Covid-19 has compelled history departments in UK universities to radically alter their teaching methods. Richard Toye explores the challenges that online teaching poses and how they can be overcome
Richard Toye

What does the Covid-19 pandemic mean for those studying and teaching history at universities? What challenges does it present for academics and students? How successfully can these challenges be met, and does the crisis present any new opportunities? And can history itself teach us any lessons about how to understand what we have experienced during these complicated times?

First, let’s consider what new and returning students can expect when arriving at university this autumn. The honest answer is that it is likely to be disorienting. When lockdown hit in the spring, academics did a brilliant job of making classes online at speed. But the crisis has had a big financial impact on universities, for instance through loss of rents from halls of residence, and is likely to hit recruitment. At the same time, institutions understandably want to offer as much face-to-face teaching as they can, while maintaining social distancing. This hybrid model – part in person, part online – creates serious logistical difficulties. So universities will be trying to do something entirely new, with fewer resources, and there of course remains the chance that a second wave of infections will again throw everything into doubt. It must be remembered, too, that disadvantaged students are likely to be hit disproportionately hard by all the disruption.

So the reality is that, at a minimum, there will be teething problems and likely a certain amount of confusion. On the other hand, compared to some other disciplines (such as those that require lab work) the study of history at undergraduate level does not actually require students to be physically in one another’s company. However, the closure of archives has been a blow to those who need to do original, primary research – particularly third year students who are writing dissertations. Some archives are now reopening, albeit with restricted services, but there will be a generation of students whose opportunities in this sphere will be much reduced. This is a great pity, as there is nothing like getting one’s hands on original documents to help inspire a historical career.

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October 2020