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Digital can’t replace face to face when it comes to widening participation

Some claim the Covid-19 crisis marks a historic turning point for our use of digital technology. Hugh Rayment-Pickard isn't so sure.
This article is more than 4 years old

Hugh Rayment-Pickard is Chief Strategy Officer and co-Founder of IntoUniversity.

With over a billion young people out of school around the world and many now learning online, the world’s online learning evangelists believe that this is an historic turning point. In our hour of need, technology has stepped into the breach, providing a test of online learning that could barely have been imagined before Covid-19.

With millions of young people in the UK now experiencing prolonged online learning, some think this is the moment for digital education to come into its own. For the most hardcore advocates – like Derek Haoyang Li of Squirrel AI – coronavirus has forced a tipping point not only for online teaching but for the emergence of artificially intelligent machine instruction to supplement the expensive workforce of human teachers.

Widening participation teams may also be having thoughts along these lines. As one head of widening participation said to me when the crisis broke: “the future of WP will be increasingly online: we need to be prepared.”

But is this right? Is this really the moment to develop more online widening participation work? Or is this the moment when we realise the limitations of online learning and the irreplaceable value of face-to-face encounters?

Digital gulf

There is much we already know about the limitations of online teaching. Covid-19 has illuminated the depth of the digital gulf between well-off families where every child has a study-bedroom kitted out with a high spec laptop, and free school meal pupils in overcrowded homes, with shared bedrooms and inadequate IT. At least in the classroom, every child has equal access to learning.

A recent survey by Teach First found that teachers in the poorest communities believe that at least a fifth of their pupils do not have adequate access to a device for online learning at home. We think this may understate the problem.

Half of our centres report that “almost none” of their students have their own PC or laptop. We are also hearing that young people with English as an additional language, and their parents, are “struggling” to make use of online learning platforms. Online learning is exacerbating already worrying educational inequalities – and this should be a concern for WP staff everywhere.

We also know that the case for the pedagogical effectiveness of online learning has yet to be made – particularly for students who are struggling at school. According to a study from the Brookings Institution “online courses are difficult, especially for the students who are least prepared. These students’ learning and persistence outcomes are worse when they take online courses than they would have been had these same students taken in-person courses.”

Our staff report that the current online offer to young people is extremely variable. A centre leader comments: “The best examples are students who are having lessons delivered live and the opportunity to communicate with their teachers. The worst examples are schools with no online platform who just have a webpage that they have uploaded some word document resources and links to other websites.” Some schools are setting too much work, others hardly any work at all. So there may be a postcode lottery at work here as well.

Our response has been to provide online resources coupled with one-to-one telephone support, which can be offered to all students, and adds the human dimension missing from online coursework. It’s not perfect, but we believe that it is the most effective approach for the young people we work with.

The future is personal

What the Covid-19 crisis is revealing is that face-to-face work is essential for young people’s development and is particularly important for those from the most disadvantaged communities. When the dust settles on this crisis we believe that large numbers of disadvantaged students will have fallen behind their peers, and online learning may be exacerbating the problem. The response across the sector should be to connect with them and provide the compensation strategies they will need to bounce back.

The Education Endowment Foundation, which has assembled the most comprehensive summary available of research on effective teaching and learning strategies, says that “evidence suggests that technology approaches should be used to supplement other teaching, rather than replace more traditional approaches.” After only a fortnight of online learning we suspect that most young people, their parents and their teachers would agree.

We predict that after several more weeks in lockdown, people of all backgrounds won’t be clamouring for more online experiences, but will be desperate to re-engage, face-to-face, with other human beings.

9 responses to “Digital can’t replace face to face when it comes to widening participation

  1. This is a very, very valuable evidence-based contribution and should be read by all involved in widening engagement (i.e. access and widening participation). Hugh raises critically important issues. The whole formal education sector (Schools, FE, HE) ignore this article at the cost of the futures of so many young – and not so young – learners. We should not forget adult returners, for whom most of these arguments apply also. Lifelong learning could very easily be lost in the discussion when it is framed purely in terms of younger learners, as recent history of these debates (pre-Covid 19) attests.
    We need a lobbying group to OfS. Fancy setting one up Hugh? Will join you if you think I am an appropriate person.

  2. I certainly agree that “The future is personal” – but I don’t think this is an argument per-se for face-to-face. The problem we face at the moment is that face-to-face has become increasingly bureaucratic, managerial and de-personalised. The campus however, does compensate for the inordinate demands for compliance by students to the rules of assessment.

    Meaningful communications (in the strictest sense “communicare” = “to make common”) are more likely to occur informally between peers in coffee bars, the pub and student digs than with academic staff. These compensations are are harder to realise online. But we have put the meaningless bureaucratic bit – the learning outcomes, the assessment criteria, the lectures, etc – online. And that may be a problem.

    But deeply meaningful communications *can* occur at a distance. They always have done. Look at the monastic communication networks in the middle ages. Ok, this isn’t very WP – but why can’t WP be meaningful at a distance? Indeed, one of the classic online education examples was precisely for WP – Stephen Heppell’s NotSchool (see

    Online can be more personal than face-to-face, and done right, it can be more meaningful. Our challenge is to deal with the way our pedagogy, curriculum and assessment regimes have rendered educational communications meaningless. Perhaps we should use the opportunity the lockdown brings us to deal with those things, rather than shooting the medium and missing the message!

  3. It is undeniable that it benefits those with facilities and I agree with the sustainability part of it; the poor are the ones who are always vulnerable when disaster strikes due to their financial limitations, unfortunately. It is a harsh reality that we also teach in our sustainability courses.

    On using digital platform, I realised that the way we set our activities online is also vital to reduce the ‘virtual distance’. Definitely, uploading some documents and recording of lectures will not be the best way.

    Recording a short lecture but designing a more comprehensive activities with Q&A will be more suitable. However, it takes so much time.
    For example, Q&A Forum in Moodle by students asking and answering their friends’s questions, is more useful than merely a quiz. Such activities can also increase the class interaction.

    While its nothing like face-to-face interactions, some adjustments need to be made with online strategies, so that we can reduce the gap since this seems to be the only avenue for now.

  4. All authors are raising valid points. I think the focus should be to improve on the weaknesses of face-to-face and online learning, and integrate both in our teaching. The feedback I got from my students is that there is no difference between the two. However, I also know that some students just log in and ‘leave’ class. So classroom control becomes a challenge. Not to mention the internet connectivity, cost, lack of devices etc.

  5. Pickard’s article raises critical issues especially regarding digital gulf. During the lockdown in my country and subsequent switch to online teaching at higher learning institutions, a lot of digital divide emerged. A good number of students had connectivity challenges and also lacked digital devices and could not learn at all. This made the institution to change from online to Blended approach for the sake of the learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. Even after adopting this mode, virtual classes via Zoom or Google Meet were a challenge to many.
    Despite this, a survey conducted on online teaching and learning by 10 kenyan universities show that majority of the learners are positive about remote teaching because it is convenient and less costly if proper training is done to both students and instructors.

  6. I agree that “When the dust settles on this crisis we believe that large numbers of disadvantaged students will have fallen behind their peers, and online learning may be exacerbating the problem” This a concern that both educators and governments need to consider. Educators in terms of providing inclusive content and platforms that allows differently abled individuals . Governments on the other have should ensure the infrastructure for online learning is both accessible and affordable.

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