The Covid-19 pandemic has changed profoundly how each of us has worked over the past 16 months. It is difficult to imagine anyone in any industry whose professional life has not been adapted in some way, whether by physical distance from the workplace itself or from the colleagues within it, and this has certainly been the case for those of us working or studying at universities.
Higher education has changed in ways that would have been unimaginable only 18 months ago, and although some changes may have been in the pipeline as the world becomes ever more digital, the pace of the transition has been incredible.
The focus today, as we slowly emerge from the pandemic, is on what adaptations could be kept to help improve our student offer, even once ‘normal’ service is resumed. A key element in this discussion focuses on blended learning and the role it will play across our universities in the years to come.
The scale of the challenge in moving whole university systems of delivery online was truly daunting. The extra resource universities put into new delivery methods should be acknowledged, but the biggest contribution has been the work of staff across the country who rapidly transferred to remote delivery and have provided an incredibly high-quality education in the most testing of circumstances.
Many people have been surprised at the rapidity with which this transition occurred but, in reality, universities have been providing hybrid delivery for several decades. However, whilst online delivery and remote assessments had formed a minor component of most courses, academics suddenly had to switch to delivering all their courses (other than some key practical components) through ‘distance learning’.
Online delivery during the pandemic was clearly far from ideal for many, particularly students, who gain from a whole range of experiences that go beyond the academic learning, but it would be wrong to suggest there were no benefits.
Many mature and part-time learners, as well as those from groups who are traditionally under-represented in higher education, reported a flexibility and accessibility that helped them adapt their studies to their lives. We must always be mindful that when we talk about students, the majority are actually not 18-year-olds who travel across the country. We have a diverse student population, a fact often overlooked in policy making, and many universities have predominantly local students, who are trying to juggle a range of personal and work-related factors. This is a point well made by Jisc in their analysis that blended approaches to learning might help enhance the student experience, and widen access and inclusion.
With this in mind, and with processes now in place to better deliver blended learning across a whole host of subject areas, could the future be one in which remote delivery forms a much greater part of blended learning, which could benefit many students, and especially those who have joined HE from non-traditional routes? This is the question faced at many universities and, although the positives do exist, we must also proceed carefully and ensure that we understand the challenges and potential disadvantages.
Student choice is a fundamental principle of the higher education sector, and in England it is linked explicitly to the fees and loans system and of investing in your own education. Although students broadly understand the changes universities have had to make to delivery during the pandemic, and with most still seeing their experiences as positive despite the changes, the evidence is clear: face-to-face delivery, and physical interaction is key in what students want from their university experience. It would be a mistake not to acknowledge this fact and ensure the academic and social experience we offer reflects this.
Then there is the starker issue of who can and cannot engage with blended learning on a very practical level. The ONS reports that 10% of the adult population of the UK are ‘non-internet users’ and these potential students, be they young or potential ‘lifelong learners’, should not be written out of our thinking. Perhaps even more worrying is that, in a survey carried out by the Office for Students in 2020, 71% of students reported lacking a quiet space to study, with over half experiencing challenges in accessing online course material; for some universities, the impact of this ‘digital poverty’ is of course even greater.
Blended learning has the potential to widen access, but if you have no means of accessing it in the real world it will turn into a barrier, impacting students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds hardest. Modern universities work with a hugely diverse range of students and it is clear that, for many, access to equipment and study time is a luxury and not something we can simply assume. Basing our ideas of future learning on a typical student who has, for example, their own room and laptop, risks widening disadvantage and making higher education less accessible to the very people we are trying to draw in.
Most universities provide extensive hardship funding that has been focused on digital access but, even for those with equipment, barriers remain in place. The first of these is the digital infrastructure of the UK itself, with variable levels of internet access, and the costs that come with improving connectivity. The additional pressures that students could experience in having to invite their fellow students into their rooms or homes through videoconferencing presents its own challenges.
How any blended future impacts on our international students must also be considered. As yet, post-pandemic visa rules are unclear on how this cohort will be allowed to study. Overlooking the complexity of this issue risks damaging the value of global education, when so much of our work is geared towards bringing these students together with home students, to learn from and alongside each other.
The increasing use of remote education within blended learning is almost certain to stay with us, and there is significant potential to gain from it if we proceed sensibly. However, we need to understand better how our students want to, and are able to, access future modes of delivery, and think through the obstacles, disadvantages and unintended consequences of any action.
Modern universities have always been at the forefront of innovative teaching and student engagement, and this is needed now more than ever as we transition to a post-pandemic world.
We must ensure that the important lessons learned over these long months are not jettisoned in a dash for the comforts of our previous lives, but equally it is essential that we really listen to what those lessons are telling us. I strongly believe that the university experience of the future will be better than ever before, but this will only be the case for all students if we proceed with caution, properly assess how students study and the challenges they face and listen to what they have to say about their education. We have a chance to improve the way we work and the way they learn, and if we can do that successfully, then some major benefits will have come out of this challenging time.
Professor Patrick Bailey
Interim Chief Executive, MillionPlus