Cambridge University will stay online for another year

The UK university is the first to announce that online lectures will remain in place until 2021. It is likely to be followed by many others

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Fresher's Week won't be business as usual at the University of Cambridge next year: the UK institution has announced that some of the social-distancing measures in place to fight the spread of the coronavirus are to remain until the summer of 2021.

No face-to-face lectures will be taking place until then, announced the university, which is the first education institution in the country to extend such measures for a full other academic year. Academic staff will therefore keep giving lectures online, as they currently are. 

The university said that it may be possible to host smaller teaching groups in person, as long as they conform to social-distancing requirements.

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A University of Cambridge spokesperson said: "Given that it is likely that social distancing will continue to be required, the university has decided there will be no face-to-face lectures during the next academic year.

"This decision has been taken now to facilitate planning, but as ever, will be reviewed should there be changes to official advice on coronavirus."

Since mid-March, the institution's IT team has been working to enable a smooth transition to remote teaching for both students and academic staff. Microsoft Teams was unrolled across the university early on. 

Panopto, an online video-recording and hosting system, has also been made available to the teaching faculty, to let academic staff record educational videos at home and deliver them via learning-management system Moodle. And the university's center for teaching and learning has published a series of guides to support teachers in moving their lectures, classes and seminars online. 

These last-minute methods, ushered in by the pandemic, are now here to stay. Anthony Tattersall, head of EMEA at global online learning platform Coursera, told ZDNet: "Even if we did go back to an on-campus model, very few international students will be able to travel to university. In a challenging and disrupted market, universities have to ensure that they keep the same amount of students retained."

Earlier this month, the government said that British universities would still be able to charge the full tuition fee of almost £10,000 ($12,279) per year if they managed to maintain high standards of online teaching. 

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The Office for Students (OfS) also recently called for universities to give "absolute clarity" to students about what to expect from on-campus life before they accept offers for the next academic year. The organization warned against promises of "campus experience" if courses turn out to be carried out mostly online.  

Still, an online offering could cut the high cost of living that is typically associated with university life, and would mean that students could dial in to attend lectures regardless of their location. While on-campus student life isn't set to disappear anytime soon, it is likely that models that blend both online and offline learning will gather pace, even when the crisis is over. 

"Cambridge is demonstrating some leadership in that," said Tattersall, "and showing they are both capable and ready. In a way, they are trailblazing what we're going to see many other universities offer."