BERLIN — This past March, German universities were forced, from one day to the next, to move all their teaching online. Before the pandemic, many institutions were organized around face-to-face teaching, and virtual learning was the exception rather than the rule.

The switch wasn't something the universities sought out, in other words. It was the result of unexpected circumstances. And yet, online teaching has worked surprisingly well, challenging the widely held view that these institutions aren't suited to functioning in a virtual environment.

Still, not everyone is pleased with the new reality, and in recent days, more than 2,100 lecturers signed an open letter calling for face-to-face teaching to be protected. They want to return to the traditional teaching model "cautiously, incrementally and responsibly," following the example of schools, which in Germany have been trying out new virus-safe teaching methods for a few weeks already.

The letter was co-written by Professor Johannes F. Lehmann from the University of Bonn and Professor Roland Borgards from the University of Frankfurt. Lehmann told Die Welt that face-to-face teaching is at the heart of universities. He argues that when physical buildings are closed, social inequality rises.

More than 2,100 lecturers signed an open letter calling for face-to-face teaching to be protected.

"We are losing students who don't have the necessary resources to engage with exclusively online teaching," he said.

The letter, published on Monday, was signed by professors and lecturers from numerous universities and research institutes across German-speaking countries. It also has backing frm the umbrella organization that represents German students.

Like other industries and organizations, universities were blindsided by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Within a few days, lecturers had to establish online platforms that students could access from home. Now, some gatherings of smaller groups are starting to be allowed again in Germany. But it's unclear still what university teaching will look like when lectures resume after the summer break.

Due to the pandemic, students in Germany will follow lectures from many institutes online. — Photo: Waltraud Grubitzsch/DPA/ZUMA

At the moment it seems likely that there will be a mixture of online and face-to-face teaching. That's, at least, what Berlin's universities announced on Monday. The lecturers who signed the open letter expressed concern that online courses would take over.

Although the move online was necessitated by the pandemic rather than adopted as a free choice, it has been welcomed by some institutions elsewhere in the world. The University of Cambridge recently announced that it plans to keep all its lectures exclusively online until 2021.

When physical buildings are closed, social inequality rises.

German universities clearly don't see this model working in the long term. In the letter, the authors argue that face-to-face teaching is a "basic tenet of university life." And although they acknowledge that online resources are valuable in the current situation, they worry that the foundation of university life — the university as a "meeting-place, a place of encounters" — could be under threat.

Online courses may be able to convey specific content and information, but they can't provide students with the experience of "discursive, critical, independent learning and communication," the letter argues. The lecturers are also concerned that the social aspects traditionally associated with university life — networking, friendships and discussions — could suffer. The signatories all agree that these aspects lose something when you try to move them online.

"Universities cannot just play dead during this crisis," says Lehmann. "If they do they'll lose all relevance." He fears that the crisis may call into question values that have previously been taken for granted, including the right for students to have face-to-face teaching and discussion.

"I have no doubt there will be cuts," Lehmann adds. "And that poses a grave danger."

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