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Open letter from a collective of Sussex academics and student-supporting professional services staff

Published on 10th September 2020 at 10:38.

A group of Sussex academics and student-supporting professional services staff have collaborated in writing an open letter to students, explaining their position on teaching in the new term.

Disclaimer added on Friday, 11 September: Please note, this is the opinion of a group of academics and support staff - it is not the official decision of the University. Read more about this.

Dear University of Sussex students,

We are writing in advance of the new academic year. In these difficult times, we have all gained great strength from being part of the university community. That community has you at its centre, and we are excited to welcome you (back).

We wanted to write to you directly to explain our position on teaching next term. You may have heard staff expressing doubts about the safety of returning to campus. You may have seen conflicting reports in the media. You may have questions and concerns yourself. We want to explain the situation as we see it, and to make our thinking clear.

Our position
As academics and student-supporting professional services staff, we are deeply engaged with the question of how we can best teach and assist you this coming term, as indeed are all our colleagues at the University of Sussex. While we are as keen as you to get back to teaching-as-normal, it has become increasingly clear that the necessary physical restrictions within classrooms, combined with the requirement to deliver teaching simultaneously face-to-face and online to different groups of students, means that teaching on campus is not currently the best way to achieve the kinds of open and engaging teaching experiences we are all used to. 

For as long as strict social distancing remains necessary, we believe that the only way to maintain the quality of teaching we are committed to providing, and that you have the right to expect, is to deliver everything (barring the most practical and lab-based courses) online. This is what all campus unions, including UCU and the University of Sussex Students’ Union, have called for the University to accept, following the recommendations of the recent Independent SAGE report.

Please know that this has not been an easy decision, and that we are aware of how disappointing it will be for many of you, especially as it comes on top of months of restrictions in all your lives. But it is a decision driven by our desire to maintain a high-quality learning experience, just as much as by our concerns for all our safety.

Teaching face-to-face
The great benefit of university teaching is its interactive, collaborative nature. Students are not passive absorbers of information, but active co-creators of knowledge. Our classrooms are not static spaces for transmission from tutor to individual learners, but interactive spaces of collaboration and engagement.

Due to Covid-19, the face-to-face teaching that the university is planning during the autumn term will take place at socially-distanced individual desks, with students facing the front, and the tutor unable to move around the class. There will be restrictions on collaborating within the room or sharing documents, materials, or equipment. While some students will be in the classroom, many of their peers will be simultaneously attending virtually (‘hybrid’ / ’hyflex’ teaching). To allow for distancing, even students who are present on campus will be required to attend many of their classes online, on a rotational basis. The majority of discussion will take place via computer screens; and for those in the room, it will be from behind masks and visors. Staff will need to manage online discussions even while they are present in the room, and have been asked to design sessions with the online experience as the starting point  (‘Zoomflex’). Classes will be cut short to allow students to queue outside the building, and to wipe down their desks on arrival. Tutors have been advised to cut down content to allow for this. 

This is not the kind of face-to-face teaching that we are used to. And it is not the kind of teaching you might expect. 

Moreover, in the absence of adequate testing, face-to-face teaching is likely to be frequently disrupted by the need for staff and students to self-isolate at short notice (whether because they have Covid-like symptoms or because they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive), and will have to be replaced by all-online teaching in case of a lockdown. 

Safety concerns
We are also concerned that even these restrictions, and the sterling work of the University’s Estates Team, will not be sufficient to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19 on campus and, in that event, students may unjustly be blamed.

We are not prepared to place you, your families, the wider community, or ourselves at risk of significant and long-term health problems, for the sake of face-to-face teaching which we know will be of worse quality. Reducing the numbers of staff and students on campus will also make the university much safer for those who need to be there (e.g. for labs and for practice-based teaching, or for those who don’t have adequate study space at home) and for those travelling there on public transport.

A better way
While it is clear that the next term will not be a normal one, we believe that for all but the most practical and lab-based subjects, it is possible to deliver high quality interactive, participative, collaborative learning online. We have spent the past seven months experimenting with different modes of online teaching, attending training, and participating in trials. The work of the Technology Enhanced Learning Team (TEL) in organising this has been inspirational. In addition, our own experiences of working virtually with our colleagues and fellow researchers over the spring and summer months have shown us how productive and creative this can be. 

We are excited to get back to teaching. We are keen to share our new thinking with you -- and to learn from you in return. We want to create the kinds of online spaces where we can truly engage with one another -- person-to-person -- without being stuck behind masks and visors, shouting across distances, or asking you not to get too close to your neighbours.

Understanding the choice
This is not a choice between ‘normal’ face-to-face teaching and ‘emergency’ online experiences, similar to what we managed to deliver in the rushed circumstances of the spring term earlier this year. It is a choice between asking staff simultaneously to manage two very different modes of teaching and enabling them to be fully (if virtually) present with their students. 

Under the current plans for face-to-face teaching, students will still need to access teaching material remotely and participate in discussions online. We recognise that some students have faced problems because of unreliable internet connections, inadequate equipment, or lack of study space. We think that with the necessary investment of time and resources, and with the space on campus freed up by online teaching, the University can successfully address these issues, and we strongly support USSU's requests for it to do so.

We agree with the campus unions’ demand to university management that anything that can be done off campus ought to be done off campus. Not only is this by far the safest option, but in the current circumstances, it is also the best. Teaching can be delivered to a higher standard online than it currently can face to face. 

With very best wishes, 

See signatories in this live version of the letter.