Had Covid-19 not struck, many students would now be returning to campuses after the Easter break. Instead, they are gearing up in homes around the world for a full term of remote learning.
Over the past month, universities have accomplished what few would have thought possible back in February – they have taken courses that were never designed to be delivered that way, to remote delivery.
It’s an astounding achievement and testament to the energy and collaborative nature of the UK higher education sector.
But now, as the sector adjusts to this “new normal” – likely lasting into September and beyond – the difference between universities that have invested purposefully in their digital learning experience and those that have not will become uncomfortably obvious. This will manifest in students’ learning experiences, engagement, and success.
Even before the pandemic hit, the distinction between universities that were investing in their digital learning experience and those who had made it a lower priority or nice to have was becoming increasingly obvious.
In search of dream courses
Universities that embrace the full potential of digital learning provide students with opportunities to deepen their understanding of new concepts, build stronger relationships with peers and professors, and develop a greater sense of ownership over their learning experience – even when they can’t be on campus.
Achieving this requires significant investment in learning (re)design for the digital age. Instead of allowing established ways of working to drive curricula and trying to replicate these online (which, as every article you’ve read on this topic has pointed out ad nauseum, doesn’t work), it means harnessing the potential of digital technology to allow students to extend learning beyond the classroom walls and interact with disciplinary knowledge, academic expertise, and each other, in new ways.
In searching for a good answer on where to start, we have spoken to thousands of academics and university leaders. We’ve learned that every university has its Dream Courses – those courses that are creating a bit of a buzz on campus, where students are excited to show up and that, not coincidentally, have fantastic outcomes to show for it. As one pro vice chancellor for teaching and learning told us, Dream Courses, “are the embodiment of our education strategy”.
Dream Courses vary by institution, by subject discipline and by student demographic, but common to all Dream Courses is that they are built around active learning approaches that drive engagement, and they value the learning community as a critical component of each student’s learning experience, motivating participation and strengthening students’ sense of belonging.
The problem is, for the vast majority of academics it is virtually impossible to deliver Dream Courses via digital – reflections of the promises of university education strategies – without significantly adding to their workload. University leaders know that. In an InsideHE survey of 172 university leaders in the United States, 75 per cent of respondents rated it very challenging or somewhat challenging to “train faculty less familiar with digital delivery”, a challenge only exceeded by “maintaining student engagement” (81 per cent), which arguably is a consequence of the former problem.
Additionally, we know there are significant access issues facing students – whether it is a digital inclusion issue, or environmental factors that stand in the way of their learning right now. This will only be exacerbated when new cohorts of students who don’t yet know one another start in September.
Therefore, the two questions university leaders must urgently ask themselves are: how do we take everything we know about the Dream Courses we have, and scale that learning experience, without compromising academics’ wellbeing and autonomy? And, how do we ensure that students can access this learning experience anytime they need, from any device they have available?
Covid-19 has accelerated every university’s timeline on digital learning. And students’ expectations for their digital learning experience have suddenly caught up with the expectations they have for all the other digital experiences they have every day.
“Digital experiences” cannot be conflated with “digital tools”. While having the right tools that facilitate active learning and community building digitally is essential, what the Dream Courses perspective highlights is that it is only when they’re paired with the right training and thoughtful learning design that the magic happens. Understanding one’s Dream Courses is not just the best way to rethink the learning experience at scale, it is also the fastest way to get to “good enough”.
Robert Talbert, an academic, put it on social media: “The conversation right now in higher ed shouldn’t be about ‘how do we/should we reopen face-to-face instruction in the fall’. It should be about ‘how do we get everyone to move to pedagogies that are decoupled from physical co-location’. How do we migrate away from instructional methods that depend upon physical space and toward methods that can move in and out of physical spaces, with minimal prior notice and with minimal disruption?” In other words, Dream Courses for a truly hybrid future will be designed purposefully to be that way.
High-quality digital learning experiences are not a luxury; they are a necessity. In many ways seeing the current situation as a “new normal” is wrong. It is, rather, the acceleration of the arrival of the learner expectations of the future. The world may eventually return to normal, but the teaching and learning experience should never be the same.
Share practice to make progress
Unless universities are prepared to demonstrate that they can rise to the challenge and deliver Dream Courses across the board and entirely remotely, the cost in terms of attrition, deferrals, complaints, and decline in student attainment will be significant.
If the forced remote learning continues into the start of the next academic year in September, and incoming students are not convinced by what’s on offer, the threat of declining enrolment could become existential. If they arrive and do not like what they receive, the chance that they come back after the winter break is lower than ever before.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that universities are faced with delivering the equivalent of a ten-year strategy in mere months – and those who have not yet invested in their digital learning strategy will be lagging behind from the outset.
But it’s not in the best interests of the sector to start looking for competitive edges or finding ways to put pressure on students to accept a sub-standard offer. Though the UK HE sector may occasionally feel fractious and disunited, compared to university sectors in other countries the UK sector is extraordinarily collaborative and communicative.
No university can claim that every single one of its courses has achieved Dream Course status. But every university has insight to share about how it might be done. By pooling that insight and coming together to tackle the problem, the sector as a whole can make rapid progress – with students as the ultimate beneficiaries.
On 7 May Aula and Wonkhe will convene an interactive event: No buildings from September – what on earth do we do about the learning experience? Find out more information and register to take part here.