Returning to the classroom, and looking to the future

Like many of us, I was pleased when I heard the news that the government had agreed to remove restrictions on in-person teaching from today. It provides yet another example of us moving out of the pandemic and back towards life as we knew it previously. 

It is frustrating that this development has come so late in the academic year – especially when Oxford, along with other universities, has proven that we are able to effectively manage the transmission of COVID-19, particularly in classroom settings.  

In-person teaching

The new guidance comes at a time when many courses have finished teaching for the year. Nevertheless, I know that departments are looking to arrange in-person teaching where possible, and that college colleagues are arranging in-person tutorials where they can.  

Students have told us time and again that they highly value in-person teaching, and that it brings mental health benefits. I know many teaching staff (including me) prefer it too, and a small number of colleagues have shared their experiences of returning to the classroom. I am grateful to colleagues who are taking steps to provide contact ‘in real life’ so late in the academic year.  

I am aware that some colleagues have understandable anxieties about returning to in-person teaching – particularly in cases where they are vulnerable to COVID-19. If you do have such concerns, I would encourage you to seek advice from Occupational Health, and to use its Vulnerability Assessment tool which is available on its website. Managers, supervisors and local HR business partners will also be able to advise. 

Building on our digital successes 

Given ongoing social distancing restrictions, lectures and large-group teaching are likely to remain online for the remainder of the year. However, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of teaching staff this year, remote teaching has been transformed at Oxford, and I am sure that colleagues will continue to provide online learning in a range of engaging and innovative ways. I would encourage anyone with an interest in flexible and inclusive teaching to attend the new Teaching and Learning Showcase, which is taking place throughout June, to learn about the successes of this academic year, and to consider how we can build on these moving forward. 

Looking to the future

It’s vital that we build on these new experiences as we move beyond COVID-19. Indeed, early planning has now started for a review of the University’s Digital Education Strategy, and I know that colleagues are already considering how we can benefit from more diverse and flexible forms of assessment in the future – building on the innovations made during the pandemic. 

It is too early to say exactly what the next academic year will hold, but planning is already taking place to help us prepare flexibly over the months ahead, so that we are ready for whatever October brings. I am hopeful that we will continue to move towards normality as we go through the summer – but of course that doesn’t mean a complete reversion to pre-pandemic ways of working and teaching. Regardless of how the pandemic pans out, given the positive and adaptable way that colleagues have responded this year, I am confident that we will continue to provide the highest standards of educational excellence for our students in the years ahead.