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5 August 2020

The Lasting Effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic: Conversations with Sector Leaders

2. Digital learning



Professor Simon Gaskell
Chair of the QAA Board



The COVID-19 pandemic has required universities and colleges across the UK to introduce new practices of teaching and learning. QAA has issued a number of documents to assist institutions in the maintenance of educational quality and the continued achievement of learning outcomes. But what of the longer term?


In the second of this series of blogs summarising my conversations with about 20 HE sector leaders from across the UK, I am specifically concerned with the issue of digital learning.


The switch to online provision in the face of restrictions on campus-based activities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic has in many instances been impressively swift and effective. But the term online provision can cover a very broad range - from simple lecture capture to an advanced interactive experience - and there is a general view that current terminology is confused and does not facilitate a ready assessment of the quality of such provision. Accordingly, there was a general welcome to the recent QAA initiative on Building a Taxonomy for Digital Learning. This blog uses the terms recommended in that report.


HE leaders agree that an increased reliance on digital learning is here to stay and that its sophistication must increase to meet justifiable student demands. This represents no more than an acceleration of a trend that was clearly apparent before the pandemic. Arguably the UK in general lags behind some international comparator institutions, so that rapid improvement is required to maintain the UK’s reputation as an international leader in HE.


This will require (among other things) focused attention on the training of academic teachers, highlighting what some argue has been hitherto inadequate attention to continuing professional development. Moreover, the attractive but demanding prospect is one of continuous improvement in the sophistication of online methodology for the foreseeable future.


New, digital forms of learning (and of assessment) pose further significant challenges - to institutions and regulators alike - in maintaining academic quality and standards, and in establishing academic equivalence between new and more traditional approaches.


Several leaders, however, were anxious to emphasise the qualitatively new opportunities presented by digital delivery. Synchronous learning, where real-time conversation is enabled between the academic teacher and their class, has distinct advantages for many purposes, notably intellectual exchange both between teacher and taught, and within a peer group of learners. Some universities have noted an increase in student engagement following the enforced switch to digital learning, a trend that they attribute to the greater self-confidence of some students in online rather than in-person interactions.


A notable advantage of asynchronous digital learning is the flexibility in scheduling afforded both the student and the university. Thus, the time-constraints of individual students, arising from their other commitments, are readily accommodated, while the university’s provision of learning resources is unconstrained by limitations of its physical estate. Asynchronous digital learning also allows greater flexibility in programme content, allowing for example more inter-disciplinary study and more personalised subject combinations for individual students. Will this prompt a reconsideration of degree programmes of greater intellectual breadth?


There is general agreement that, in the majority of cases, universities will choose to optimise the contribution of digital learning to a blend with on-campus/on-site experiences. One leader suggested that there is 'no evidence anywhere of the success of 100% online learning programmes for 18-year olds' (implicitly noting that individuals returning to education may have experience that better prepares them for a programme based solely on digital learning). Furthermore, many disciplines (for example, performing arts, medicine, laboratory subjects, etc) generally require the physical presence of students for significant components of the programme, even allowing for the introduction of techniques of virtual reality.


The advantages of blended learning are usually expressed in terms of the flexibility afforded to course design and presentation (and, of course, adaptability to future crises such as pandemics). At least one university leader goes further, and is pursuing the ambition that their institution’s particular blend of campus-based and digital learning should be flexed to suit the personal situations of individual students and their learning preferences. It’s an approach ambitious for its demands on academic and physical resources, but also emphasises a more general challenge noted above – that of ensuring the academic equivalence of on-campus and digital delivery.


Many of these developments prompt the fundamental question of what constitutes a personalised approach to digital learning in HE. The answer to this must be informed by the student perspective, an aspect of the lasting impacts of COVID-19 that I will explore in the next blog in this series.