Universities in the UK and beyond have found themselves at the forefront of a revolution in digital teaching provision, driven by necessity and yet all but unplanned. There have been successes which will continue to form part of learning and teaching for the foreseeable future, such as the adoption of more flexible communications platforms and wider use of blended learning techniques. But there have also been challenges, not least with accessibility, but also with the management of student and postgraduate expectations.
This mixed picture has been reflected in disparate feedback from students. Jisc reported that two-thirds of students rated their online learning this year positively, but also found that only a third found the experience engaging, while many struggled to access newly-adopted platforms and resources.
However, it appears that the ‘blended’ experience is here to stay. And so it is not surprising, given the spectrum of student perspectives and accessibility issues, that the Office for Students has stated that students should have a say over online learning. Likewise, the OECD concludes that students will not put up with high fees should learning take place predominantly in an online setting.
For the past eighteen months there has been a single, clear reason to move provision online. But as we look toward the next phase of our collective pandemic experience, shielding the vulnerable and preventing infection and spread of COVID-19 will likely give way to, or at least be joined by, other motivations.
Of course, the risk is that digital provision becomes associated with financial thriftiness on the part of institutions, or misdirected pragmatism, or even a fundamental misunderstanding of what purposes different media serve, and the possibilities they present. There is also the danger that our engagement with digital provision is driven too much by our newfound proficiency with it: new toys can grow old quickly, and their lasting value can be overlooked as a result.
Staying resilient in the face of unpredictability
Those institutions which most successfully integrate digital and face-to-face provision will be those which think carefully about the fit between the medium and provision, having the confidence to be inventive with the ‘blended’ boundary between them. It is not enough to try to directly emulate the face-to-face experience with digital means, as anyone who has attended an online conference in the last year will know.
But to be able to present a truly engaging ‘blended’ experience will require flexibility. The tools used must if possible span, and be meaningful in, both digital and face-to-face contexts, and facilitate the easy transition between the two. As an EdTech company working closely with pioneers in this space, the ability of our platform to signpost, collate and track engagement across digital and face-to-face modes of operation has enabled our partners to shift the balance between them creatively and efficiently.
The cleverest strategies we have seen are those which provide resilience through flexibility in the face of an uncertain future, enabling rapid shifts in the balance between digital and face-to-face provision, and synchronous and asynchronous events and resources. For the time being, having ‘plan A’ and ‘plan B’ in place for provision will be essential for all universities. But equally important will be the question of how quickly and seamlessly we can switch between them, and how we will ensure our objectivity as we continue to redraw the blended line.
Dr John Miles is Founder and CEO of Inkpath.