Online provision needs good academic governance too

Emily Owen considers the academic governance challenges associated with fully online higher education

Emily Owen is a Consultant at Halpin

Solutions to contemporary problems are often digital. Most conundrums are met with a response of “there’s an app for that!” – even the Oxford English dictionary.

Digital solutions are popular with universities too, from learner analytics to fully online degrees and everything in between. But in a sector where regulation seems to be increasingly close, how can governing bodies ensure success from afar?

Senates and academic boards are the academic authority of a university. They are responsible for defining the educational character of an institution and exist to monitor an institution’s academic health.

They are also key to enabling the autonomy enjoyed by so many UK universities as it provides academic assurance to the university council or board, which in turn assures the regulator of its educational quality and standards.

But there is a less overt role of senate too – it must also understand who its students are, how they are learning, and where they are learning.

Diversity and inconsistency

This poses a significant governance challenge. Fully online provision means greater diversity of student characteristics (good) and an array of potential pedagogical inconsistencies (not so good).

Will a part time student with a full-time job produce comparable outcomes to a student accessing materials from their home halfway across the world?

This is not just a challenge for digital provision, as universities continue to move outwards in various ways, from internationalisation to commercial partnerships.

In October, the Office for Students (OfS) confirmed that franchised provision will be at the top of its B3 hit-list this academic year.

These challenges will not be new to senates in the UK. As a sector, we’ve been slowly embedding digital solutions into our practices for years. But only recently, taking the Open University and the odd other example out of the equation, has this levelled up to fully online degree programmes.

In direct contrast to the materials developed in the urgent pivot to online education during the pandemic, these courses are made to measure and fit for purpose. The challenge here comes from the strange space that universities, and indeed society at large, currently occupy – digital solutions are already embedded in what we do, but we are not post-digital yet. The models and frameworks of success we may be tempted to look for do not yet exist.

Balancing the risks

So the way that senates across the UK approach discussions around online quality and standards may require a bit of creativity and the acceptance of some risks.

There will be an element of trial and error – online learning doesn’t intend to replicate classroom practices but completely subverts them. The terms of reference for what constitutes a university education are also expanding, and this should be central to how a senate discharges its duties.

Some flexibility may even be a means of futureproofing – developments in UK education ranging from T Levels to the Lifelong Learning Entitlement show that alternative ways of receiving an education are being “socialised” across the country.

Rigid classroom-based learning is not for everyone. If HEIs wish to remain competitive in their recruitment, they need to assure that digital provision can be appropriately governed.

The current narrative of regulation in the sector, and one that has been building for quite some time, is that regulation is perhaps more intrusive than it ever has been. It may feel odd therefore that the development of online provision is taking universities in the opposite direction – at a distance and towards remoteness.

Where an individual learner has control over where, when, and how they access learning materials, there is likely to be great variation in the way they progress through a course. The OfS conditions most explicitly relevant to this issue are B1 (academic experience) and B2 (resources, support, and student engagement).

While an online course can certainly provide educational challenge and remain up-to-date for example, the nuances when we turn to online learning should be accounted for.

  • Is a chat function that encourages students (who may or may not engage with it) to challenge one another’s thinking enough?
  • Can materials that might be accessed by one student at 9am and another after a day of fulfilling caring responsibilities at 9pm constitute a course that is “effectively delivered”?
  • And maybe the most pressing – can a provider ensure “effective engagement with each cohort of students” half way across the country, through a screen, or with no live exchange of conversation at all?

Not to mention, the facets of a “high quality academic experience” which is delivered wholly online still being somewhat unknown to us, or at least without significant longitudinal data around progress and outcomes available in the mainstream.

Increasing flexibility

However, if the UK sector is one thing, it is adaptable. University senates may need to introduce flexibility into their own structures too. At the risk of provoking some eye rolls, a “Distance Learning Committee” of Senate may be a means of generating new terms of reference which sit within the delegations of senate but give newer or more experimental provision appropriate distinction.

If this feels unnecessarily bureaucratic, a task and finish group may be your thing. Something that is temporary and can hone in on one desired outcome – to bring together evidence of best practice and case studies of success that produce something alike the “good governance” framework we are looking for.

Wherever we turn, it is evident that UK society is becoming increasingly digital. The consequences for higher education can be transformational, such as replicating real-life experiences in the classroom. Others not so positive, with fears around plagiarism and inauthenticity.

Regardless of where you sit in the debate, a university senate must ensure two things – clarity on how it gives council assurance on the academic quality and standards of an institution, and council’s confidence in the assurance it receives. Online learning should be a distinct part of this fabric.

7 responses to “Online provision needs good academic governance too

  1. Online teaching is completely corrupting the student experience. It isolates young adults in their bedrooms. It is damaging to mental health. Universities are moving teaching online and not declaring this openly on UCAS or their websites as they are required to do by CMA guidelines. The Universities motive is to save costs and also to open up new markets where they can sell largely online degrees to more people. None of this is mentioned in the article , which is a bit of an oversight to say the least.

    1. Where is the evidence for any of this, for example, that online education damages mental health?

      Online education does not necessarily save costs: it requires considerable elecrtronic infrastructure, and at least as much if not more staff time as campus based education.

  2. Where is the evidence that online education has more pedagogical inconsistencies than campus based education? It is far easier to record and compare online education than campus based education.

    How is online engagement necessarily less effective than turning up or not to passively sit in a lecture on campus?

  3. “The Universities (sic) motive is to save costs and also to open up new markets where they can sell largely online degrees to more people”

    Why is that a bad thing?

    Some people still seem to regret the setting up of the OU and are rolling out the same tired old tropes about mental health and isolation.

  4. Congratulations on the article, Emily. At Newcastle we have a Dean of Digital Education who sits on our Senate, helping to support the committee in its oversight of this important element of academic strategy.

  5. If Universities are proud to be offering online teaching then why do they hide it ? Why don’t they openly declare their structure of contact hours and whether it is online or in-person on their websites or UCAS?

  6. We are a 100% online postgraduate institution with a 95% graduation rate and very happy and successful students. I don’t think this trully reflects how student focussed online education done imaginatively and with integrity can work. Good governance of online education is essential but like good online degrees, has to be built from the ground up for the online domain not an add on to a system designed for face to face.

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