Forced shift to online teaching in pandemic unleashes educators’ deepest job fears

‘Culture-change moment’ for higher education.

  • Richard Watermeyer et al.*

Credit: Sam Edwards/Getty

Forced shift to online teaching in pandemic unleashes educators’ deepest job fears

‘Culture-change moment’ for higher education.

9 April 2020

Richard Watermeyer et al.*

Sam Edwards/Getty

Richard Watermayer

Cathryn Knight

As universities everywhere rapidly move their learning, teaching and assessment online in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, academics especially in the UK feel unprepared, inadequately supported and deeply fearful.

They dread that this forced culture-change moment for universities will result in their deskilling, obsolescence and ultimately, unemployment, our survey of 1165 university educators reveals.

It’s still early days. Our online survey started on March 27 and remains open. But our initial findings have surfaced ominous predictions of the impact of this current pandemic – and digital conversion – not only on the health, employment and wellbeing of academics as educators, but on the sustainability of the university sector.

“It's the end of the 'traditional learning space' as we know it,” wrote one respondent.

“I believe that the university will use this as an opportunity to remove all face-to-face teaching of postgraduate students, effectively destroying my role and the style of teaching that I love. I expect to either be forced into online teaching or to be made redundant within the year”, wrote another.


The survey was distributed among our many academic and higher education policy networks, through learned societies and through higher education support organisations. Among our respondents so far, the great majority (1013) work in the UK higher education sector, followed by the USA (79) and the European Union nations (73). Most self-identified as assistant of associate professors (780), or full professors (184). There were 103 respondents identified as being on teaching-only contracts. The biggest groups represented among a broad spread of disciplines were social science (15%), education (14%) and computer science (13%).

Fewer than half of our total respondents agreed they felt prepared in moving all learning, teaching and assessment (LT&A) online. Overall, UK academics appear to be lagging behind their European and USA counterparts in terms of feeling prepared and confident in moving LT&A online, and also in terms of their knowledge of its technological dimensions. The proportion of academics who said they felt prepared was 47.5% in the UK compared with 62.5% in the US and 81.5% in the EU.

Those who expressed confidence in their ability to facilitate LT&A online were also much rarer in the UK, only 59.9%, compared with 70.9% for the US and 93.9% for the EU. UK educators were similarly far behind those in the US and EU in stating they had a good working knowledge of the technologies supporting LT&A online.

Respondents identifying ‘Computer Science’ (69.9%) and ‘Education’ (67.3%) as disciplinary affiliation were most represented in agreeing they felt prepared to deliver online LT&A. Conversely, respondents identifying ‘Biological Sciences’ (71%) and ‘Business and Administrative Studies’ (60.6%) as disciplinary affiliation were most represented in disagreeing that they felt prepared.

Only half of all respondents said they had a home environment suitable to supporting LT&A online. While fewer than half stated that they have caring responsibilities, almost 80% of those who did said this was negatively impacting on their ability to effectively deliver LT&A online. There may be a gender correlation here with a higher percentage (56.5%) of total respondents being female.

Many referred to the difficulty in balancing home demands with a sense of now being permanently on-call to students – *“We are available 24/7 now that we are online” *– in addition to the alienating effects of an exclusive technologically-facilitated interface:

“I am finding it difficult to manage and balance the demands of home-schooling whilst constantly being available online via email etc to feedback, mark, answer questions. I am a slave to devices now which I really don’t enjoy”.

Some are also reflecting on how being “constantly inundated with electronic contact is overloading and mentally exhausting”.

Dread of deskilling

Others have seen the online transition as a process of deskilling, with a lack of focus on effective digital pedagogies and practice: “I feel like I may as well be a technician rather than an instructor. I’m just posting stuff online and trying to keep up with far too many online discussions.”

A dread of deprofessionalisation, dwindling agency and even future obsolescence in the face of digitalisation is a feature of many respondents’ accounts, for instance:

“An expectation that each session will be recorded and made available online regardless of staff preference takes away from our autonomy as lecturers and makes us feel like cogs in a machine and not human beings. It will add to the rhetoric that we're disposable and accountable for literally everything we say and will take away from our freedom of speech and creativity within the learning space to have timely, challenging discussions.”

Half of our respondents expressed doubt about students being able to access and meaningfully engage with online materials. Some also expressed concerns that online transition will disadvantage non-traditional university entrants and those targeted under widening participation initiatives.

While a slim majority of our respondents spoke positively of the support received from their institutions in making an online move, the experience of many has been less positive and prompted them to reflect, in this typical statement: “What we're doing isn't even "online teaching" – it’s disaster management”.

Others have signalled fear that universities’ hybrid or even permanent transition to LT&A online was a cost-cutting initiative that would significantly alter the teaching role in universities and jeopardise academic jobs.

Concern about competition

Respondents also expressed concern about the market-vulnerability of universities in being far behind the digital standard of existing online or private higher education providers:

“I am concerned that with our online activities not being as well developed as other (private) competitor institutes, we will lose out on students and therefore my course might have insufficient numbers to run. I'm concerned about the longer-term viability of my role”.

Some attributed work intensification caused by online transitioning of LT&A as major drain on their research careers and a cause of them ceasing research separate from the physical closure of university premises. Those trying for their first permanent academic job were seen to be affected most of all in this respect.

The brighter side

However, respondents’ perspectives are not uniformly bleak. Some are looking at online transitioning as a necessary and overdue, if forced, transformation of an academic mindset towards LT&A:

“As an institution where a substantial proportion of academic staff have been resistant to the use of any teaching and learning methods except face to face for a very long time, this situation has been a revelation for many colleagues and seems likely to fundamentally change the shape of our teaching and learning design in future”.

Some have even characterised forced online migration for universities as a ‘renaissance’ for LT&A.

Long-term impacts

We are only just beginning to scratch the surface of the implications of universities’ online migration in the immediate context of the pandemic. It is already, however, plain to see from our early analysis that there is not only variation across disciplines, universities and international sectors in terms of preparedness, confidence and necessary knowledge in facing the challenge of moving LT&A online, but major and potentially long-term impacts for academics and universities as members of a global higher education community.

There are important social, health and wellbeing related issues to consider. Moreover, a prolonged – perhaps, even permanent – shift online raises significant questions around student engagement and related concerns of student retention and recruitment.

The immediate challenge is to use this rich and wide-ranging data to begin to engage a UK and international community of policy-makers and higher education stakeholders, in making appropriate arrangements for the protection, support and development of the academic workforce in a massively uncertain and troubled era.

*Tom Crick, Cathryn Knight and Janet Goodall are co-authors.

Richard Watermeyer is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Bristol

Tom Crick is Professor of Digital Education and Policy at Swansea University

Cathryn Knight is Lecturer of Education at Swansea University

Janet Goodall is Associate Professor of Education at Swansea University

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