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We’re in the middle of a global experiment in remote learning as educators and students tackle the challenge of high quality learning at a distance. Long-standing objections to online teaching have been set aside, as it proves to be not just viable, but for some, preferable. As many universities prepare to deliver at least the first semester of the 2020/21 academic year online, they must look to build on the innovation we’re seeing right now.

Developing new learning programmes that blend digital and face-to-face methods to meet the needs of both students and educators. Institutions must also look to online learning to attract new students who either can’t or choose not to study on campus. This piece explores some of the key challenges in delivering those experiences.

Video conferencing software like Zoom is poorly equipped to deliver the rich communication, energy and experimentation of the classroom. Especially at scale. A tutor in a 1,000 seater lecture hall can sense if students are absorbing concepts, changing the pace and style of their delivery accordingly. Whereas the distortion and awkwardness of video calls can make engagement between tutors and students difficult. Recording and reusing lectures however, means that lecturers can spend more time interacting directly with students—such as offering extra Q&As and seminars via Zoom.

The transition to online learning during the pandemic is expected to cost the higher education sector £1bn, but further investment will be required to make blended models a success in the long term. Whilst lecturers have moved online with impressive speed, streaming a lecture is not the same as designing and delivering an engaging multimedia presentation. For many, this will require new skills, as well as investment in technology and support.

Where students in the same classroom or lecture hall get the same delivery, online learning amplifies the digital divide. Wealthier students have the latest gadgets, better bandwidths and more stable wifi connections. Disadvantaged students on the other hand, may not. Many primary and secondary schools have tackled this by distributing iPads and laptops to students. With the UK government also pledging to distribute iPads, laptops and 4G routers to those students most in need. The digital divide extends beyond technology to the support and coaching a student receives whilst studying at home.

For most, the social aspect of university is a crucial component. Research shows that students like going to lectures on campus because they’re a social occasion. Building relationships online however can prove harder. Students can feel like they don’t belong to a peer-group, which in a face-to-face environment instills a sense of competition and camaraderie. Blended learning experiences will require closer contact between lecturers and students; through more small-group tutorials and more regular communication through email and chat. What’s more, online learning is likely to be done with a reduced attention span, as students multitask during online lectures. Online learning programmes must find ways to motivate students, as well as supporting the social interactions that underpin the university experience.

At the beginning of the 2010’s it was predicted that massive open online courses (MOOCs), like Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity and edX would disrupt the global education industry. Until now however, students and educators have continued to favour face-to-face learning. The coronavirus pandemic has offered a glimpse into a model of higher education that is dramatically different.

Blended learning programmes will help universities to address the potential £760m shortfall in their income by opening up new revenue streams. As well as better serving international markets, blended learning models can meet the needs of non-traditional students (over 25, working adults) and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Moving online has allowed one American University to cut their tuition fees by 61%, opening up higher education to a wider audience. And, as the nature of work continues to evolve, forcing workers to re-skill throughout their lives, universities can use blended learning to deliver learning in smaller, more flexible chunks.

Online learning platforms allow students and educators to learn from and add to a global knowledge base. Whilst some universities already put lectures by their star instructors online, services like MasterClass offer celebrity-led courses including: Frank Gehry Teaches Design and Architecture; Chris Hadfield Teaches Space Exploration; and Dr Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation. At the same time universities are experimenting with global collaboration through programmes like the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange project, which promote collaborative learning between students from across the world.

New technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality are already enabling educators to create virtual learning environments that dramatically amplify engagement and retention. Google’s Expeditions for example allows students to explore galleries, museums, the deep ocean and outer space through over 1000 VR and AR tours.

Finally, the evolution of online learning has the potential to produce better student outcomes: data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence will enable tutors to facilitate a more personalised and enriching experience. Online assessments will enable one-to-one teaching focused on a student’s individual challenges and focus areas. In the new academic year and beyond, universities must continue to adapt. Post-coronavirus students and educators will be accustomed to and even expectant of learning programmes that blend online and face-to-face teaching.

In developing those programmes universities are more likely to succeed if they focus on the needs of students and educators. While promoting the best parts of the traditional university experience, universities should build on the spirit of innovation we’re currently seeing. Using it to fuel their efforts as they seek to capture the opportunities offered by an accelerated development in online learning.

Image source: Mohammad Shahhosseini

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