The Office for Students is reviewing the use of online and blended learning approaches to higher education during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.
A notably independent review chair has been asked to produce a report drawing on evidence from the sector and from the wider literature. Because we need to know what “good” looks like in this mode of provision, so the regulator can ensure students are getting value for their fees.
And we need to understand to what extent this “new normal” will meet the expectations of students and other sector stakeholders.
Gravity always wins in the end
It was September 2020, and outgoing OfS chair Michael Barber – in a narratively neat “one last job” – was instructed to deliver a report on terms of reference similar to those described above. “Gravity Assist”, when it emerged in March last year, was helpfully engaged in the wider literature about technology enhanced learning but didn’t really move the conversation forward that far.
But the conversation did move forward. A term and a half of insistence that the pandemic is somehow “over” (do have a look at case numbers and reflect on how many of your immediate circle currently have Covid…) and the same universities that were bravely going above and beyond to bring emergency online learning to the majority of students now found themselves under attack from the usual sections of the press – and from ministers who should really know better – for using this same technology to deprive students of the crowded lecture theatres they apparently yearn for.
Michael Barber could cite literature suggesting that blended learning may lead to better learning outcomes than in person alone, but as far as the national conversation is concerned this is now a deliberate ploy by universities to educate students on the cheap.
Enter Susan Orr. Shortly to take up a Pro Vice Chancellor role at De Montfort University, and a creative arts educator and researcher of some repute, she – alongside an expert panel with membership yet to be determined – will report in the summer on:
concerns that the poor quality of the online experience for some students during the pandemic has undermined the positive potential of mixing in-person and online course delivery
One can only conclude that Michael Barber must have got it wrong.
Never ask a question unless you already know the answer
We’ve heard the usual supportive noises from DfE, but once again it does feel like the event horizon is the end of the news cycle rather than the end of the review.
Running it through – in order of unlikeliness – there are three things that Orr could conclude:
- Blended learning is great, and the complaints are largely without foundation
- Blended learning is in routine use at a marked detriment to the student experience in order to save universities money.
- There is a mixed picture on blended learning – there is a lot of great practice but some provision lags behind, and a mixture of enhancement and enforcement needs to be deployed to drive up quality.
None of these endpoints benefit either the Office for Students or the government.
The first is almost certain to be avoided – it would make OfS and DfE look particularly silly, and it should be possible for an enterprising journalist to flush out some dissatisfied students from some corner of the sector that could noisily give lie to the findings. This discredits the report, and causes the already deteriorating relationship between DfE and OfS to get worse.
The second initially feels like good news for a regulator determined to enforce and a government keen to cut the size and autonomy of the sector. But it poses a couple of very awkward questions – most notably “Why do universities so desperately need to save money?” and “Is there anything government or the regulator could be currently be doing that is making universities need to do that?”
It would add volume to the calls to address underfunding in higher education – the fee freeze and recent cuts to recurrent grants looking increasingly culpable here – and also prompt questions about the way recruitment growth or shrinkage among provider growth went into hysteresis during 2020 and 2021.
To the regulator, findings two and three would prompt questions on the nature of regulation on quality assurance. Why are all these whizzy dashboards and headline-generating clampdowns not able to spot – for the want of a better phrase – pockets of low quality provision? Why isn’t there some designated body – perhaps one that has notably engaged with the quality aspects of online and blended provision during the pandemic – that could (as Michelle Donelan would supposedly prefer) actually inspect and form a view on the quality of teaching? Why hadn’t the OfS student panel flagged this issue earlier – and is there perhaps a way that the student voice could feed in to quality assurance more directly (perhaps via an involvement in quality assurance processes at a provider level mandated in some kind of sector recognised standard)?
Add in a worst case scenario – that the current rise in case numbers denotes a new and hugely concerning Covid variant and we reach summer 2022 via Boris Johnson using the word “alas” (which we all know means another lockdown) – and you have the full spectrum of reasons why this report at this time may improve policy but remains bad strategy.
It’s wrong to wish on space hardware
Needless to say, none of this helps students who are experiencing delivery patterns that differ markedly from what they had been led to expect when applying to a course. Though, in the most cases, dire warnings about the Competition and Markets Authority from OfS mean that marketing copy should – by 2021 entry – have been written in such a way that current practices are defensible on those terms, there are clearly some students that are and will continue to be very dissatisfied with what is available to them.
Susan Orr’s background in the creative arts highlights one likely flashpoint – vocational qualifications with cancelled (or newly remote) placements, one year postgraduate courses without the networking and personal attention promised, would be others. There are already various group complaints making their way through the Office for the Independent Adjudicator – other problems will be mired in university processes or, at worse, simply accepted by students as the way things have to be.
It is easy to dismiss this noisy combination of the usual personal freedoms ultras and the contact hours absolutists as a fringe position. But this is unfair. Systemically, students have suffered – and continue to suffer – disproportionately during the pandemic, but that Thursday morning 9.00am lecture now coming via Zoom is perhaps less of an issue than diminished employment prospects, unfair accommodation deals, access to learning resources, and the rising and uncompensated cost of living.
OfS could reasonably have set up an independently chaired inquiry on any of these issues, or on many others that are routinely brought up by students and their representatives as critical and immediate problems. That they instead chose another Telegraph commonplace (to follow groundbreaking work on the proportion of assessment grades awarded for correct spelling and grammar) is rather regrettable.
Susan Orr and her panel will do the best job that they can under the circumstances. The final report will most likely be another useful data point – alongside Gravity Assist – in the decades-long scholarly project on the affordances and quality of online and blended learning. Quite what practical difference it will make to struggling students is unclear.