One of the immediate consequences of the coronavirus lockdown for Britain’s teachers and students has been the sudden and largely forced migration from campus theatre to home classroom. For some, this has been an alien and not entirely welcome adjustment. For others, myself included, this is pretty much business as usual. Universities and communities that prepared for the anticipated shift to online will thrive, whilst others may feel quarantined long after the pandemic ends.

I work in the University sector and, for many years now, have been teaching a Masters module entirely online. In many ways, it is an odd experience; I never meet my students or even speak to them. Teaching is delivered via an online platform, where we can communicate through a discussion forum. To be frank, it is not much used; students are provided with videos of my lectures along with the accompanying slides. I also provide a huge amount of additional reading material, consisting of journal articles, reports, government publications, news items and more. We keep it deliberately low tech so those students with limited internet access can still participate fully.

There are pros and cons to remote teaching and learning. On balance, I would argue that the plusses of remote learning vastly outweigh the minuses, and that this is a trend already underway and one that will accelerate after we recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

So let us look at the positives. Well, for a start, neither I nor any of my students have to travel to the university. That saves us time and money as well as being kinder to Mother Nature, with less pollution from cars and aircraft.

Cost saving is a huge benefit too. My students are dotted all around the world. For a fortunate few, travelling to the UK to study is an affordable and manageable endeavour, but for most it is not. Many of my students come from countries where visa-free travel to Britain is not an option. (Often UK visas are expensive and very hard to come by.)

Then there is the additional advantage of being able to fit your studies around your work commitments. So whether you are a member of the United Nations mission in South Sudan, involved in anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean, or working as a hard-pressed police superintendent in Bangladesh, it really doesn’t matter. So long as you can get online, you can study my course. Lectures can be accessed and viewed at any time of day or night, and questions and queries addressed to your tutor will be answered quickly. Such engagement can build relationships and a spirit of trust and mutual respect that can be challenging to achieve in traditional face-to-face settings.     

And, of course, it’s worth remembering that, in an environment where contamination and infection are serious threats, studying via the web is a pretty safe way to develop new knowledge, skills and attitudes to make our world a better place.                      

However, there are also huge implications to this type of remote studying. Some are technical and can be overcome, such as verifying that a student’s work and exam paper has been produced by them. A bigger issue is the impact that will be felt by universities unprepared for this shift and the towns and cities that depend on them for prosperity. For example:

What would a collapse in the occupation levels and value of student accommodation mean for neighbourhoods and those who invest money into them on the understanding they’ll be occupied?

How would a university balance sheet be affected by a double whammy of falling tuition fees and an oversupply of campus real estate, such as lecture theatres, seminar rooms and other property?

Universities play a crucial role in the economy as well as the education of people and, just as they were built and modernised to serve disparate communities, so they will be again.

Universities play a crucial role in the economy as well as the education of people and, just as they were built and modernised to serve disparate communities, so they will be again. Face-to-face learning like the work I have done in the past for OSCE won’t vanish but – like it or not – this is the future; virtual campuses replacing physical ones, in what is set to become a period of revolutionary change in working, learning and, indeed, living.

Dr Tim Parsons is a Visiting Lecturer in Police Studies at Liverpool John Moores University and an advisor on human rights and police reform to the United Nations and OSCE.