Online education adds value. Let’s not turn our backs on progress

Good online learning, combined with quality face-to-face teaching, gets great feedback from students

Universities are publicly taking flak at the moment from students and sector commentators who deem online learning to be poor quality and poor value.

Such broad-brush statements are unhelpful and unfair. It’s frustrating that those with loud, negative viewpoints seem to earn the most exposure.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) and their staff worked tirelessly during the pandemic to deliver courses online, showing an unprecedented level of innovation in teaching and learning tools and techniques. That tenacity has mostly paid off and, moreover, has set the path for further progress in online teaching methods that, if done right, provide the flexibility of choice in learning on and offline, that students want and which the sector needs to remain competitive

Jisc’s annual HE student digital experience insights survey, released this week, finds that finds 67% of almost 39,000 respondents rate the overall quality of online and digital learning highly, from ‘good’ through to ‘best imaginable’.

Students providing such positive feedback will likely be experiencing rich online resources and activities that are arguably more engaging and effective than traditional lectures. Combined with quality face-to-face time with tutors and peers, this blended approach is widely considered best practice.

Indeed, the Jisc-led Learning and Teaching Reimagined collaboration, and the Office for Students’ Gravity Assist report into the future of higher education show that students and staff value a mixed model.

Better still, students ought to have more choice about when, where and how they study. Fully remote or blended learning is arguably more inclusive, offering flexibility and opportunities to those with caring responsibilities, disabilities or access needs, and those for whom mental health issues make being on campus difficult.

HEIs are working out the tech that works and where to place their investment, while staff will become more accustomed to and confident in using edtech

With the right devices, connectivity, digital resources and support both on and offline, personalised, digitally enabled education can and should become the norm.

We aren’t there yet, though, and universities are working hard now to build on what they’ve learned over the past 18 months.

Students unsurprisingly told us they want, indeed need, better quality collaboration than online can provide, and we expect universities will provide a wide range of high-quality face-to-face activities in addition to online lectures (which are only one aspect of a modern student’s degree).

Remember that delivering high-quality online teaching at scale is new for HEIs and of course students reported varying experiences. We know that universities are grappling with this by training lecturers in the art of ‘good’ online teaching. There is also opportunity here for wide-ranging collaboration to create digital materials.

Most worrying are the barriers that exist for far too many students. The survey was conducted when the majority of learning was taking place online and almost two thirds reported problems with poor wifi and 24% cited mobile data costs as an issue. We will continue to fight for digital equality for those who are disadvantaged in this way.

In terms of the quality of digital teaching practice, I fully expect that to continue to improve. HEIs are working out the tech that works and where to place their investment, while staff will become more accustomed to and confident in using edtech.

Uncomfortable though it was, the pandemic has been an incredible learning opportunity. We have all had to be more flexible, adaptable and responsive – and that includes the way in which we use tech in life and in learning.

The fourth industrial revolution has had a real shot in the arm, thanks to Covid-19, and universities are rightly embracing emerging digital technologies for the benefit of the economy and to provide the experiences that students want.

So, let’s stop criticising HEIs that are continuing with online lectures; let’s not turn our backs on progress and let’s start to celebrate what digital technology can offer.


Paul Feldman is out-going chief executive officer at Jisc

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