We are beginning to see the results of some of the research conducted on the emergency remote teaching (ERT) widely experienced during the pandemic.
Common themes include students reporting that online learning affected their academic performance, and that they were less motivated to study online compared with face to face. Many students felt lonely and depressed. Academic staff were struggling with rapid technology adoption and increased workload.
With Covid-19 related restrictions being rolled back, educational practitioners and researchers are now shifting their attention to the future of online higher education in the post pandemic era. A recent special issue of the British Journal of Educational Technology is just one of many examples.
As researchers in this field ourselves, we believe that ERT has provided benefits to staff and students. For example ERT offered a platform from which students have developed their online learning abilities, and it gave academic staff across all disciplines valuable experience in using different technologies.
A bright future, or a regretted past?
Many consider that a hybrid model of learning and teaching, blending aspects of both face-to-face and online learning, is the future for higher education institutions. This academic year many universities in the UK have offered a form of blended learning.
But it has not been clear how providers have ensured the quality of teaching and learning in blended learning. There are signs of another change in attitudes, and more universities are deciding to go back to the old normal – teaching entirely face to face from autumn 2022. We are interested in finding out the reasoning behind these decisions.
Universities, of course, are under a lot of pressure from the government and from students to “return to normal”. The Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi has told universities that they have no excuse for providing online learning in future because there are to be no further lockdowns in the UK.
The decision to return to on campus teaching has also been influenced by the ongoing debate regarding university tuition fees. Many students (and many parents) are unhappy with online and blended learning, seeing it as a cost-saving exercise that should make for lower tuition fees.
From the perspective of the UK government and students, the feeling is that online learning does not provide the same learning experiences as face-to-face learning, and does not add value. Echoing these thoughts and concerns, the Office for Students has recently launched a review of blended learning, to be led by Susan Orr. But is this view correct?
What does the literature say?
Examining the published studies relating to ERT, we notice that staff and students did not face any significantly new difficulties and challenges compared with the pre-pandemic era, and also there were no major changes seen in the way academic staff taught and engaged students online, regardless of the cultural and educational contexts.
In addition, it seems universities were unaware of the need to look after students in terms of their social networking and community development in online environments. Studies have shown that students viewed social life as a very important part of university life and the online learning environment neglected this aspect of the student experience. This also seems to have had a significant impact on students’ assessment of the value for money of online learning.
The main issue here is that, with no demonstrable advances in online pedagogy as a result of ERT and the resistance from many students to its further large-scale adoption, there appears to be little if any added value from it, apart from the flexibility and convenience it offers.
Currently, higher education in the UK does not seem to have a clear answer to the question of the future of online higher education. We believe that online learning does offer a chance to provide a more interactive and an enriched learning experience to students. However, in order to achieve the goal, universities will need to consider how to integrate extracurricular activities and better support for students’ social interactions online.
This may be the missing piece of the puzzle as online learning does not provide the same level of intimacy as face-to-face learning. Universities should also consider updating their existing digital strategy and policy, based on the experiences and lessons gained during the pandemic. Academic staff should expect to be offered training and support to understand online pedagogical approaches, to better be able to implement the type of hybrid learning that we think is still on the way. And universities should also focus on developing students’ digital literacy and other online skills, as without this the resistance to any element of online learning and teaching will remain.