Our students’ normal patterns of life have come to a halt. Simple activities like a trip to the supermarket or a night out with friends are now difficult, risky, or even prohibited. Demand for online education has increased and it is clear that students need digital institutions going forward.
A new report, Learning and teaching reimagined: a new dawn for higher education?, forecasts significant change for UK universities. The report is the result of five months of higher education research to understand COVID-19 responses and explore the future of digital learning and teaching. It involved more than 1,000 education sector leaders, staff and students through webinars, roundtables, consultations, focus groups, surveys, interviews and case studies. We’ve summarised the findings here.
Takeaway #1: University is a holistic experience
University is as much about the student experience as it is about learning and knowledge curation; it’s why the majority of students opt to live on campus. It’s why teams, societies and student representation play such a major part in university life. Experience is intrinsic to the choices that students make, and their overall university life.
The non-academic aspects to consider as part of student life include the transition to university, their family obligations, financial limitations and city-centric or university town lifestyle. For example, at Royal Holloway, University of London most of the student population lives within a two-hour journey of the university and London commuter culture prevails. Many students work part-time to supplement their finances, but they still want to engage in extracurricular activities and perform well in their studies. So as part of the Digital Futures strategy at Royal Holloway, their approach maximises a student’s time on campus, and at the same time enables students to take the campus with them and access all the services they need when off-site. This approach of adopting a blended experience enables anytime/anywhere learning, breaking down geographic barriers to delivery and extends the institution’s reach into new markets.
Takeaway #2: Students and educators alike prefer blended learning
Multi-campus institutions see both challenges and opportunities in the pivot to online learning. Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, with five campuses in three countries, was always subject to multiple regulatory frameworks and reopening requirements. The challenge for this institution is that every campus is very different from the others because COVID-19 restrictions in every country are different. With distancing requirements drastically reducing classroom capacity, the university’s tactic for post COVID-19 sessions is a responsive blended learning approach. To take one step back, let’s define blended learning. Blended learning is an approach to education that combines online materials and opportunities for interaction online with traditional place-based classroom methods. It requires the physical presence of both teacher and student, with some elements of student control over time, path or place. In the case of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, everything will be available online. As the risk of the pandemic lessens and public spaces open up, the university will bring more students back to campus at different phases in each country.
Blended learning also means some real benefits for the university that were struggles pre-pandemic. Students prefer blended learning that incorporates extensive online components alongside in-person learning because it’s more convenient, saves time and makes it easier to access course materials. With blended learning, all students start online and they can join the on-campus activities in week three, four, or five, having not missed anything to start with. Lecturers also see opportunities to improve educational outcomes by adopting a wider range of learning activities, allowing greater flexibility of study times, space for reflection and a move to different forms of assessment. If there is a sudden lockdown again, responsive blended learning continues curriculum delivery, and global teaching teams can support each other around the world.
Takeaway #3: A modern campus will rely on collaboration technology to thrive
One way higher education institutions can keep ahead of the curve is through the integration of collaborative technology. Students and staff are now accustomed to collaboration tools in their personal lives. Whether it’s the ability to control home heating systems with their phone, or how instant messaging platforms are aiding communication, staying connected has become an integral part of everyday life.
The University of Glasgow has some interesting plans on this front, as it develops a ‘Smart Campus‘ that takes into account changes in technology and learning whilst also protecting the university’s heritage (both cultural and physical) and realising cost savings. The Smart Campus actively learns from and adapts to the needs of its people and place, unlocking the potential of e-technology and enabling world-changing learning and research. From the way an institution registers and stores student data, to updating grades on a centralised app, if a campus wants to keep up with students and staff, it needs to embrace collaborative technology.
Another example of a university taking COVID-19 on as an opportunity to evolve is the University of Warwick, which has committed to become the first public 5G connected university campus in the UK. David Plumb, the University of Warwick’s Chief Innovation Officer said, “Our public 5G connected campus will support new areas of research, enable new teaching technologies, help us to support even more regional businesses, and will add to students’ campus experience be it in teaching, eSports or simply through an enhanced performance on mobile devices.”
It’s becoming clear that a holistic approach is vital in enabling student success and institutions now have access to new and emerging technologies to support them.
Key recommendations from the study for UK Universities in 2021:
- Embed digital at the heart of university culture. Leadership and vision are essential for transformation as digital becomes a central feature of learning and teaching.
- Invest in the short-term but with a long-term strategic view. Most university learning and teaching infrastructures need significant upgrades to support the expansion of online learning and teaching. As this is a rapidly maturing field, careful long-term planning is needed to ensure investment is strategic.
- Explore new economic models for high-quality blended learning at scale. Scaling up high-quality blended learning and teaching takes considerable time and investment. If the shift is to be sustainable, affordable and widespread, work is needed on the economics that will allow transformation.
- Embrace blended learning in curriculum redesign. Focusing on learning design, with student involvement, will ensure that it achieves high-quality outcomes and makes a difference by shaping fully accessible and inclusive learning.
- Expand the digital skills and confidence of students and staff. Significant and rapid progress has been made in improving the digital capabilities of students, staff and leaders, but there is much more to be done. Increasing all-round digital confidence remains a priority.
- Communicate the benefits of blended learning. We have witnessed a significant increase in the acceptance of digital learning and teaching but further attention is required to understand and meet shifting perceptions, both within and beyond the sector.
- Strengthen the response to digital poverty. The digital divide was brought into sharp relief in 2020 with students’ differing levels of digital access. This remains a priority concern for all groups. Additional resources are needed to level up opportunities.
It took a global pandemic for UK universities to jump-start their digital transformation, but there’s no turning back now. Universities have seen how digitisation enables even the largest and most mature organisations to respond to crisis, whether it’s standing up a remote work model or changing how students learn. A critical goal to be competitive in 2021 and beyond will be differentiating your university’s student engagement model and building a world-class virtual university experience.