When the Covid-19 pandemic hit UK universities, there were highly variable online learning and teaching responses that led to differential student experiences.
Some universities were already specialists in digital education, while many had quite a journey ahead. The sector was quick to identify the need to rally together to seek to close the substantial gap between where we were and where we needed to be.
Initially at least, the priority was getting content to learners as quickly as possible. For some, that meant audio-recording lectures and sticking Powerpoint presentations online. Others were able to undertake a more sophisticated redesign of pedagogy and develop advanced materials. “E-mature” universities – the Open University being pre-eminent, plus places such as the University College of Estate Management and ARDEN university – were able to extend their reach and audience quite effectively.
Regardless of their starting point, all the many university leaders I’ve encountered embraced online learning with vigour, putting considerable energy and resource into developing their institutions’ digital work.
What students want
Student opinions of online learning have changed through the lockdown period. Initially, there was widespread skepticism. Many learners and media commentators saw online as automated versions of in-person learning and teaching – which, ipso facto, can never be as good. Evaluating the new learning by seeking to compare traditional with online lectures is setting the wrong test.
The best digital learning is not about automating the lecture, lab or studio, it’s about achieving equally strong or better learning outcomes by alternative means. Six months down the line, learners are increasingly seeing the advantages of blended learning and assessment that mixes online and in-person approaches.
Responses to health and safety concerns have shifted too. In the Spring, many students still wanted to attend lectures, go to parties, and participate in sports and society activities. Many now feel the risks of traveling on public transport and getting close to other people are such that online learning is preferable, but they remain concerned about a fear of missing out on university life.
Wearing face coverings and social distancing are being normalised, but the theories about how the sector can best protect staff and students while delivering the experiences they seek, have not been tested in practice. The return to university is a huge risk, yet this autumn, we’ll invite more than a million people back to our campuses.
Emergency measures vs long-term plans
The first issue for leaders, when the pandemic arrived, was to fulfil our immediate obligations in terms of teaching, learning and assessment, so rapid choices were made. The summer has given universities time to take stock, upskill staff, and consider their programmes and modules. There’s now a lot of talk about exemplary model templates, minimum standards for delivery and content design, and technology platforms. Universities are working actively towards an interim solution.
There has been widespread concern within universities and colleges to mitigate the differential impacts of online learning on disadvantaged student groups. Some notable approaches include: remote laptop imaging and fulfilment, online mental health services, online widening access and language classes, and access to hardship funds. For some students online learning is beneficial because they don’t have to leave the house, can study when they are able and at their own pace, and review material until they are happy with it.
A big challenge remains in how we educate senior leaders who are familiar with bricks-and-mortar environments and with research and teaching in-person, but who, often, aren’t so comfortable or knowledgeable when it comes to online work. As a rough estimate the ratio of spending on digital estates versus physical estates has tended to be around 1:10 – so for every £10m universities spend on physical estate, they spend £1m on digital. The events of the last several months suggest that this needs to get to parity. Some would argue it should even tip in favour of the digital estate for the next several years, given the impact of Covid-19.
Gaps and challenges
At the same time, staff skills remain a hurdle to leap if universities are to move more programmes online successfully. Thankfully, the will to engage appears to be there. Staff, by and large, have pitched in and been willing to develop their skills and create online materials. Those at the top of the tree must do so too.
The substantial number of senior leaders I’ve talked to worry they don’t have the knowledge or skills to know what digital, online and blended learning really mean, or what investments will reap the greatest benefit. We need experts. University senior leadership teams always include a DVC/PVC for education, and ones for research and resources – but who has a DVC/PVC for digital?
The need to address these things and more are highlighted in the interim report of the Learning and Teaching Reimagined initiative, which brings university leaders together to create a post-Covid vision for the sector. The heart of this work is not about technology or skills, it’s about pedagogy and learning design. Those things are as critical to online as they are to in-person learning and teaching. What drives and enables this is important too. The digital infrastructure that powers and connects universities, facilitates cloud technologies, protects staff and student data, and supports digital innovation, must also be invested in.
A huge question for the autumn term is: can blended learning survive contact with the Covid-19 enemy? How will university students and staff deal with local or even national Covid-19 outbreaks? Many universities have consequently put adaptability, agility and flexibility of delivery at the top of their educational priority lists.
We’re now weighing things up. University leaders are trying to balance three significant needs: minimise the risk to public health; continue education and research; and secure financial sustainability. That’s a significant challenge – but we’ve co-developed detailed guidance with sector bodies and governments, which we’re working to implement. University leaders are on board and some have been helping to drive policy.
Overall, I’ve seen great commitment from university leaders; people want to improve outcomes for students and make universities more efficient. Through the Learning and Teaching Reimagined project, and the forthcoming digital teaching and learning review commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education and led by Sir Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students, I hope further ideas will emerge for how principles, technologies and pedagogies might be put together to find an optimal solution for each university’s unique situation. We’re in this together, so let’s embrace every opportunity to learn from one another.