Will learning ever completely replace universities?

How things should go on at the universities in autumn

Green, yellow, orange, red: the four colors of the coronavirus traffic light from the Ministry of Health are intended to indicate the risk of infection with Covid-19 throughout Austria. In a guideline issued by the Ministry of Education for all universities - i.e. universities, technical colleges and universities of teacher education - this warning system is cited as being decisive for the organization of university operations. The paper should "offer orientation and contain recommendations and checklists," said Science Minister Heinz Faßmann (ÖVP). But what do these colors mean for university operations?

  • Green: presence mode
    Teaching, research and general operations take place at the university - regardless of whether it is enriched with digital elements and services. And regardless of whether the Covid-19-related first requirements (such as distance rules, hygiene rules) apply - as long as they do not have a decisive influence on operations on site.
  • Yellow: dual operation
    In the dual model, face-to-face and distance operations run in parallel: teaching, research and general operations generally take place at the university. Distance learning is made possible for certain groups of people (for example high-risk groups or international students) who are unable to attend the university on a regular basis due to Covid-19 prevention measures.
  • Orange: hybrid operation
    Parts of the operation are done on site, and parts are done digitally. This goes beyond the presence and dual operation insofar as the hybrid model is not only enriched with digital elements, but the digital teaching is the essential component. Safety and protection aspects will then also be significantly strengthened.
  • Red: Distance operation
    Teaching, research and general university operations are - as far as possible - digitized. Libraries are closed. Only the critical infrastructure as well as those activities and services are maintained, the setting of which would lead to risks or major financial damage for the university.

Faßmann is assuming a "hybrid operation" for the coming semester. In other words: "Some courses will take place on site, other courses will take place digitally." It is good to be prepared for it, said the minister. And: "I allow every type of university to take university-specific measures. That means there are common approaches, but individual implementation."

And this can vary from university to university - because they are autonomous. While the University of Klagenfurt, for example, is planning to hold the courses "as far as possible" in the winter semester as classroom teaching, the largest university in the country, the University of Vienna, has developed different concepts for teaching. The lecturers can - depending on the situation, type of course, teaching preference - plan events digitally as well as on site in the lecture hall or hybrid. There are various models for this that are available to teachers. An example of "hybrid" reading courses: The students are divided into two groups, the on-site course units take place alternately: Group A is present in one week, Group B in the other.

There are also various "hybrid basic models" for lectures, such as the possibility of attendance for a numerically limited group of students plus a live stream for everyone else. The FH Campus Wien, on the other hand, relies on a combination of face-to-face teaching, distance learning as well as hygiene and behavioral rules.

BEGINNERS: "Less social exchange could reduce the motivation to study"

"In October I will start my bachelor's degree at the University of Applied Sciences in Vienna. I don't know much more: One or two weeks ago I received an email that there was an information event for new students on the first day and that enrollment would start next week I have to enroll digitally or at the university is also unclear. Despite several attempts, I did not reach the study department.

I would like to be taken by the hand a little more so that I don't have to tremble in advance whether everything will really work out. And my wish is to be able to study everything on site as much as possible. The university has not yet communicated what this will look like.

The fact that first-semester students in particular should have classroom teaching is a glimmer of hope. Because starting a degree and organizing yourself is challenging. I would find it doubly challenging that you should study online right away. You have to get to know the processes and the environment first.

I would also like to get to know my fellow students better. Social exchange is particularly important in creative subjects. But I assume that - at least in part - it will not take place that way. I think that could result in less motivation and less joy in studying. "(Set)

ADRIAN B. (19) starts his Bachelor Cross-Disciplinary Strategies at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna in October.

MASTER'S STUDENT: "Discussions of theories don't work so well online"

"I had a face-to-face exam in July that was attended by my fellow students. That was probably one of the last times we were closed at the university - I'm in the fourth semester of my master’s degree and am writing my thesis. That was a strange feeling. After all, you have The further you are in your studies, the more you do with your colleagues, with whom you exchange ideas on WhatsApp.

In the current situation, I find it sensible and understandable that the universities do not open completely. In Innsbruck there should be a hybrid model, in my master’s it will probably continue like in summer. I already have online appointments for all but one course. We were promised that there would be a date where we would meet at university - but that depends on how the pandemic develops.

I would of course wish otherwise. I study because I like the exchange at the university, and sociology is a lot about discussions of theories in order to be able to classify them, presentations and group work. The summer semester showed that it doesn't work so well online. There were also technical problems, many were kicked out during the online courses, some professors weren't prepared. Lectures worked well, many professors recorded them and could be viewed later. That should be kept - especially for working students.

For these, there is also the difficulty that in most cases there is only one seminar on one topic in my subject - and not two, as usual. It's difficult to reconcile. There is a bit of the attitude among the professors: 'You're all at home anyway, that's no problem when the course takes place.' "(Set)

ALINA W. (25) is studying social and political theory at the University of Innsbruck.

DOCTORATE: "I wasn't there much before Corona either"

"To be honest, hardly anything has changed for me after the university closed in March. I have been writing my dissertation at the Institute for History at the University of Vienna for almost two years. I had a predoc position there until March.

But even before Corona I didn't have to be there much, I was able to work from home and write my dissertation. Most of the documents I need for my thesis I have already digitized in advance or asked libraries to do so. It went well for me because I didn't have to rely on the libraries either. Their opening times are a disaster even without Corona - especially when you work and have a child.

The work at the institute worked without any problems via email and at a distance. I am in the privileged situation that I am not dependent on the resources in the office and at the university. I'm just a little sad that I didn't even have my last month of work with my colleagues. The office was closed. "(Ook)

TIM R. (33) is writing the dissertation at the Institute for History at the University of Vienna.

(Oona Kroisleitner, Selina Thaler, September 2, 2020)