In Hilary term 2022, students at all levels of study at Oxford were invited to enter the Imagining the Future of Digital Education writing competition.
Entrants submitted news articles telling fictitious stories of the future of digital learning at Oxford, with all submissions helping to inform the University’s new Digital Education Strategy.
Second prize was awarded to Claire MacLeod. Here is her submission. You can also view all competition winners.
Learning remotely in the library
It’s only 8am and students at the University of Oxford are already filing the seats at the library. Some students are fresh-faced and holding mugs of coffee while others are puffy eyed and somewhat worse-for-wear. As they file into the Radcliffe Camera (RadCam), some take a moment to gaze up and marvel at the ornately decorated ceiling. The iconic dome designed by James Gibbs has remained completely untouched despite the rest of the Bodleian library network undergoing dramatic changes to address the needs of online learning. A wealth of new resources, spaces, and initiatives have transformed the way that students work and socialize with one another. While the starched-white columns and dreaming spires allow students to indulge in a moment of wistful admiration for past architectural achievements, one could argue that there are more important human innovations happening on the library floors.
Most buildings at the University of Oxford are ostentatiously exclusive. The high walls, gigantic wooden doors, and discrete signage on the central colleges communicate their intent to conceal and protect privileged intellectual world, accessed by members only. Five years ago, the libraries of Oxford shared this exclusionary design. Opening hours were often limited, readers were expected to remain silent throughout their stay, and study spaces were simple and relatively unvaried. Yes, there were plenty of outlets available, the WiFi was pretty good, and the ambiance was generally peaceful. But these spaces were designed for an education system that was quickly changing. As remote learning became embedded in the every-day practice of universities, the librarians of Oxford realized that they would have to completely reimagine how to serve the needs of the student community.
Many of the students in the RadCam this morning still remember the days of ‘remote’ learning during the pandemic. One third-year recounted her experience, ‘I was so isolated, my mental health was terrible. My family really struggled during the pandemic and I remember falling behind in school. There was no one to help me, no one to talk to if I needed a break or help with homework. My life just revolved around this horrific experience of being cut-off from the world and chained to my computer. I would lose hours just doom-scrolling through social media and watching my grades plummet without any support.’ This seemingly ubiquitous experience and tales of “lockdown misery” is what the librarians at Oxford have worked to address over the last few years.
Undergraduates now dash off to a stairwell that leads to the underground tunnel connecting the libraries to one another. These tunnels contain individual study rooms that provide silent space to attend live classes without disturbing other readers. These are booked on a first-come-first-serve basis but there’s rarely a day that a student can’t find a ‘Teams-room.’ Each Teams-room contains a desk, an adjustable light, an assortment of outlets, a packet of loose-leaf for exams, a computer with all accessories (mouse, keyboard, headphones, webcam etc.), and a large whiteboard. Some rooms can be booked for multiple people to attend the same class and some rooms have been designated for specific purposes. There’s an ‘Anatomy Room’ with large scale models of the human body, a ‘Languages Room’ where students can attend immersive foreign language conversations with students from around the world, and the very popular ‘Conference/Field Rooms’ where students can attend ‘hybrid’ conferences and conduct ‘field work’ using virtual reality goggles. In one ‘Field Room’, I witnessed a student leaning in to point at some unknown object and then recoil suddenly. One can only wonder what they saw.
In addition to the many innovative options for private and partnered study, students are now able to enjoy the communal reading areas in a less monastic fashion. There are still, of course, the usual ‘silent reading areas’ but these have now been strategically separated from the ‘social study areas’ where conversation is encouraged. It is in these open forums that some of the most incredible conversations in the university occur. Students from all different disciplines share tips on essays, hold each other accountable to screen limits, pitch business ideas, and frequently ask for help from the squad of librarians and teaching assistants nearby. The teaching assistants were a recent and welcome addition to the library system. Most are graduate students who are paid to sit and work in the library for a few hours and answer minor questions from undergraduates studying in the same subject area. ‘It’s like an open-air office hour’ one DPhil student tells me as they eat their lunch next to a painting of Henry VIII. ‘It makes communication with students so much easier than online. Especially those who just need a minute’s pep-talk or subtle nudge in the right direction.’
As the afternoon gradually turns into evening, I see a few students close their laptops and hand them into the library front desk. This is part of the ‘Right-to-Disconnect’ scheme which encourages students to store digital devices at the library—a rigid enforcement of work-life balance. While voluntary, the scheme requires students to have impeccable time management and is strongly encouraged by tutors who note its ‘miraculous’ effect on productivity and well-being. Other students, however, prefer to view the library as a place of community that extends beyond working hours. Since 2023, most of the Bodleian Libraries have been open 24/7. ‘The late hours do get a bit strange…’, one night librarian tells me. ‘…but then there’s the evenings where you’re helping a teenager desperately trying to recover a lost file or navigate financial aid websites and you see the value of having this place open all the time.’
I’m inclined to agree because at 3am, I am still seeing students watching lectures, reading articles, watching videos, laughing, whispering, shouting, and apologising to their neighbor. It’s a unique experience of being online and also feeling genuinely connected. There’s nothing ‘remote’ about learning in a place where an immense pale dome is the least interesting thing in the room.