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OfS launches digital review amid online learning concerns

Office for Students begins review of online teaching and learning to target ‘digital poverty’

Students suffering from “digital poverty” are at risk of falling behind as teaching moves online, the Office for Students has warned ahead of a major review into digital education.

According to the OfS, 52 per cent of students feel their learning was hit by slow or unreliable internet during lockdown, with 8 per cent claiming their studies were severely disrupted. As the coronavirus spread earlier this year, universities cancelled face-to-face teaching and courses were taught online to try to contain the pandemic.

The poll of 1,416 students, run for the OfS by marketing firm Natives, revealed a further 56 per cent did not have access to good online course materials, 71 per cent said they did not have a quiet study area and 18 per cent did not have access to a laptop or a tablet.

While 51 per cent said they were satisfied with the quality of their teaching during the pandemic, more than one in three (34 per cent) said they were not. More than half (54 per cent) believed their university had done all it could to minimise the impact of lockdown on their studies.

The findings were published as OfS chair Michael Barber launched a review into the future of digital learning and teaching, which will also explore how online technology has been used to deliver education since the Covid-19 pandemic began. It is the last major review Barber will run before he steps down as chair in March next year.

Barber said that while he had been “repeatedly impressed” by universities’ “innovation and ingenuity” during the pandemic, there were “a significant number of students whose access to remote education is being disrupted—sometimes severely—by poor access to core digital infrastructure”, with differences between urban and rural areas.

Barber explained that the OfS “cannot risk students being left behind in the rush for online innovation” and stressed that the review will focus on “the impact of digital poverty” and student access. “In a short space of time many universities and colleges have significantly developed the digital teaching and learning options they offer students,” he said.

“It is critical that we build on this progress—identifying what has worked well in recent months, what methods could be enhanced further, and identifying long-term opportunities for innovation that will benefit generations of students into the future.”

The regulator is looking for evidence from those who design and deliver digital education, as well as student unions. Although the review will scrutinise online education, its findings will not be used for regulation by the OfS.

Commenting on the review, shadow universities minister Emma Hardy said it was “unacceptable that any student’s education should suffer due to digital poverty” and called on the government to “ensure that no university student is unable to access the education they deserve”.