Did OfS fix the digital divide?

Buried near the back of the Office for Students’ new Gravity Assist report on digital learning are some fascinating research results.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

You might recall that when the Office for Students launched details of Michael Barber’s farewell Zoom tour, it published polling that told us the nature and scale of the so-called digital divide at the end of last academic year.

71 per cent of students said they lacked access to a quiet study space, with 22 per cent “severely” impacted. 56 per cent said they lacked access to appropriate online course materials, with almost 1 in 10 “severely” impacted. 1 in 5 said they were impacted by lack of access to a computer, laptop or tablet. And over 10 per cent said they were severely impacted by having too little money to live on.

On the site at the time I said that hopefully, we’d all be reading Gravity Assist in the waiting room for our dose of vaccine. I was kind of right. But I also suggested that students on the wrong side of that digital divide couldn’t wait – and I was keen to see how government policy and/or OfS might have caused an improvement to the figures above for what was then the autumn term ahead.

Put another way, I was keen to see whether the other component of the task given to Barber by Gavin Williamson when he resigned – “to consider how providers could continue to enhance the quality of their online delivery for the approaching academic year” so that “claims of quality can be made with confidence” – had been successfully met.

It’s not great news, either for DfE or for OfS – and therefore, for students.

Fieldwork undertaken between 18 November and 2 December 2020 first asked students about the type of teaching and learning they had received in the previous two weeks. A whopping 61 per cent ticked “Fully online delivery of teaching and learning; no in person delivery”, which does reinforce the question – so why did we make students “be there” physically?

The digital divide questions were different from those asked last spring, but should still shame us as a society if not as a sector. 15 per cent lacked the right technology hardware, 12 per cent lacked the right software/applications, 30 per cent lacked good enough internet access, and a similar percentage lacked adequate study space.

Almost 30 per cent actively disagreed that they were content with the digital teaching and learning they had received on their course. Over half said they’d not been asked for feedback on the digital teaching and learning they had received, which does rather suggest that mid-module review went out of the window last term. And there is some interesting perception data from students on what they think was working online:

Seminars for your subjects37%
One to ones with your advisor3%
Social interaction with other students67%
Social interaction with academic staff53%
Collaborative/group working among students51%
Labs (i.e. practical work that would previously have been done in a laboratory setting)53%
Placements (i.e. experience within an external organisation or company)52%
Performances and portfolio reviews24%
Nothing - I do not think any aspects of my course cannot be replicated online7%
Not sure6%

Worryingly, just shy of a third said that the digital teaching and learning they had received was worse than that which their provider told them they would get. And for planners there’s some intel on what students think their university should continue delivering online once the pandemic is over:

Lectures (delivered live over video conferencing software, e.g. Zoom or Microsoft Teams)25%
Lectures (uploaded recordings)45%
Seminars for your subjects19%
One to ones with your advisor26%
Social interaction with other students11%
Social interaction with academic staff13%
Collaborative/group working among students14%
Labs (i.e. practical work that would previously have been done in a laboratory setting)5%
Placements (i.e. experience within an external organisation or company)5%
Performances and portfolio reviews0%
Nothing - I do not think any aspects of my course should be delivered online after the pandemic29%
Not sure8%

I should say here that I don’t think it’s ever been realistically possible this academic year for the sector to deliver anything like a mass, high quality student academic experience for most students for multiple obvious reasons. The vast majority of universities and the vast majority of their staff have done their very best and gone above and beyond, but that’s not the same as saying that as a result it’s been great or even good “enough” in the context of a global pandemic.

As a society, we didn’t fix the digital divide, we told students they needed to take out rental contracts when they didn’t, we didn’t meet expectations set for digital delivery, and we didn’t even ask for feedback on how we were doing.

The point isn’t that on the resource and capacity that the sector had that it could have done more – that might be true in a tiny of minority of cases, but I doubt it. The issue is the fiction that OfS and DfE maintain that “if” students haven’t received the “quality”, then they “should” complain and claim a refund – using systems of individual redress that are exhausting for them, punish the very providers breaking their back to fix it all, and are designed for individuals rather than mass, shared, structural experiences.

The polling stats suggest industrial scale policy failure, and either means OfS should fire out fines for non-compliance with consumer protection law guidance, or write to DfE and point out providers did everything they could, but that students still need to be compensated in some way.

It won’t do either, of course.

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