This year’s students will not give universities the benefit of the doubt when it comes to online learning

In the middle of a raging pandemic, students cut universities a lot of slack about online learning. Doug Specht warns that this year that might not be the case

Doug Specht is a Director of Teaching, Learning and Quality Assurance at the University of Westminster

Last year was tough. But you don’t need me to tell you that.

It was made a lot tougher too by a dithering government, who, like many universities last summer hoped that the pandemic could be wished away by some summer sun and longing for the incoming semester to be business as usual. Large swathes of the sector went into the year under-prepared for what was about to happen. Smelling the weakness of a limping animal, the media piled in for the kill, whipping up a call for reduced tuition fees and attacking online learning as being well below par. As the new semester approaches, and with many institutions planning for blended learning, the sector faces perhaps even bigger challenges than last year, and both a hostile government, and much of the media are baying for more blood. The cost of getting things wrong this year is greater than ever, so what should be the approach to the coming year, and to teaching and learning in HE?

Despite only 6% of higher education staff reporting they were confident in using digital technology in their teaching in the year leading up to the pandemic, years of investment and projects promoting digital tools in universities lured much of the sector into thinking they were ready for a quick change to working online in the autumn of 2020. This false impression, coupled with very last-minute decisions meant there was little time to support colleagues in preparing to work online.

Out on their own

While most universities have announced their teaching plans much earlier this year, there is still a real danger of repeating these mistakes, and this time there is a lot less chance that universities can say ‘we are trying our best, but we have to be online because the government says so’. This year our teaching and pedagogy will have to stand up to scrutiny on its own.

Many universities are opting for a blended approach. This makes sense, blended learning has huge amounts of benefits and done right it can support learning for a wide range of students and different circumstances, can be more inclusive and promotes independent critical thinking. A move to blended learning also is seen as allowing us to take the best of what we did last year and the best of our classroom practice.

Blended learning though is not bits of ‘what I used to do in the classroom’ + a sprinkle of ‘what I did online last year’. Blended learning is a pedagogical approach in its own right. However, while the sector looks to the benefits of blended learning, including the flexibly it can offer institutions in the face of the continuing pandemic, there is a risk that unless things are done right, it will be seen as a ‘quick fix’ or worse, a cheap alternative.

Getting it right

There is still time to get this right for the new semester. From research carried out throughout the last year, we found there are really three things that need to be done to prepare for the new year if the sector is to thrive in the new blended environment.

1. Invest in training for staff: Everyone is tired, and perhaps the last thing anyone wants right now is to go to a training course. However, one reason people are so tired is because last year became a scramble for many, a scramble to self-teach how to teach online, with results that were not always what we wanted – draining us further. Our research showed that staff who pushed to undertake formal training in online teaching were happier, felt they could engage better with students, and ultimately saw more satisfied students. Working collaboratively in these processes, rather than as individuals also further enhanced these outcomes.

2. Start with pedagogy and curriculums, not with technology: Much of the focus last year became about which online tools and how to use them. But again, our research suggests that if we start from our learning objectives, and then building blended learning over the top of this, selecting and learning the technologies as a final stage, there are better outcomes for staff and students alike.

3. Communication and expectation management for students: Over promising and under delivering is the quickest way to losing students. Clear, careful communication that is consistent across the school, college or university is key. This means not only the published information provided, but also the points of contact, the technologies used, the messaging about why we are working as we are, all help to create a supportive learning environment.

Last year was hard, it was always going to be hard, and there was little that would have made it easy. It could have been easier than it was. Many universities are looking much better prepared for the coming year, looking to the flexibility and the benefits of blended learning. Unless this concept is really embedded in the culture of the university, with training and development for staff that places their teaching front and centre rather than a technological fix, we might see a repeat of last year’s uglier scenes, and now we have nowhere to hide.

2 responses to “This year’s students will not give universities the benefit of the doubt when it comes to online learning

  1. This is so right and hoping universities are investing in training and support in learning design

  2. we found that male students utterly dominated the online space and even when we tried to facilitate non-male students we found the dominating male students made jokes or worst -it is clear that the gameification of the learning environments suits those with gaming experience and sets up a very gendered space which is not at all inclusive -just saying it is ‘inclusive’ denies the very significant intersectionality of learning enviroments in which non-white non-males have struggle for years to find space -we need to address this and be mindful off it from day one and in our pedagogy

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