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Making the political case for online learning

In recent months we have heard both the education secretary Nadim Zahawi MP and universities minister Michelle Donelan MP criticise English universities for replacing face-to-face contact with online learning. This is likely a reaction to complaints by some students, parents and MPs.

Alistair Jarvis
Alistair Jarvis CBE, Pro Vice-Chancellor (partnerships and governance), University of London

Their commentary has included suggestions that universities have been reluctant to revert back to pre-pandemic patterns of delivering face-to-face teaching and learning support. They have accused universities of being motivated by a desire to save money by offering what they suggest is an inferior learning experience. And they have threatened regulatory action if universities do not get everyone back into lecture halls.

I think that this political commentary is misguided; indeed, I suggest that you could go as far as to say it is ignorant about some of the facts about online learning. However, I don’t think that universities can or should dismiss or ignore it.

It is legitimate for politicians to raise concerns with us. As a sector, we need to understand these concerns and address them. After all, political perceptions could have an impact on future policy, funding, regulation and the overall reputation of online learning.

Our responses to the concerns need to be both evidence-based and politically savvy. We should start by challenging the misconception that online learning is being offered to save money or because academics can’t be bothered to get back into lecture halls. We need to emphasise that where digital learning has replaced face-to-face, this is part of a blended approach that takes the best of face-to-face and combines it with new digital advances – often learning from the pandemic experience but based on good pedagogy, staff expertise and student feedback.

Indeed, any arguments we make for online learning should be rooted in student feedback. Although it is true that many students see value in face-to-face teaching, it is not true that they necessarily see digital learning as inferior: the feedback is far richer and more nuanced than this.

As the patchy attendance of restarted in-person lectures indicates, different groups of students have different views on digital offerings. We need to understand and better explain what we know about student demand for online education. It is clear that for some groups of learners there is demand for an online education offering, while a face-to-face experience would not appeal.

The pedagogical approaches online, or blended, may better suit their preferred way of learning. Or they may find that flexible online provision is the best way to fit in higher education into their busy family and working lives. Or they may simply lack the financial means to commute or travel internationally.

On that last point, the UK government wants to grow education exports. There is strong demand from international students for a UK education experience delivered in part or in whole online. The University of London has been delivering this successfully to students around the world for more than 160 years – we need to evidence this and communicate this.

Any argument about online education must also explain how we are ensuring its quality. It is a fair challenge by government to ask universities to ensure that the education offered online is at least as good as that being offered face-to-face. We must evidence both the quality of digital delivery and the student outcomes it leads to.

We should be clear and forthright about the link between online education and meeting the skills needs of businesses and public sector employers. The UK economy needs more people with higher levels skills, and graduate job vacancies are rising. As long as we get the learning and support experiences right, online education will open up higher education to those in work, mature students and groups that traditionally have low higher education participation rates.

This will allow universities to meet the economic need by expanding at a pace and scale that would otherwise be impossible. In a report that’s just been published by the Times Education Commission, among a range of recommendations is the suggestion of 50 new campuses across the country in educational ‘cold spots’. Yet physical campus infrastructure (which, incidentally, will also be necessary to respond to demographic growth) will take many years and be very costly. Proper investment in high quality online education would provide an alternative to meet skills needs and student demand. Digital delivery will also help develop the digital skills that employers value but say that they struggle to recruit.

If we articulate all this clearly and consistently, which politician could disagree?

Alistair Jarvis CBE, Pro Vice-Chancellor (partnerships and governance), University of London

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