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Path from the pandemic: Getting the right blend


Universities are taking “bold steps” to improve education and avoid returning to pre-Covid teaching models

The prime minister Boris Johnson has promised that the UK is on an irreversible journey out of lockdowns and away from Covid-19 restrictions, even with this week’s delay to the latest phase of opening up. Universities are not so sure.

As the autumn term approaches, institutions are hedging their bets and preparing for the coming academic year with a mix of online and face-to-face tuition. 

Among those resisting a rush back to the pre-pandemic format of fully face-to-face contact is the University of Manchester, which is expecting that all students enrolled in on-campus programmes will still be learning through a hybrid model of online and in-person learning next year.

The University of Liverpool has also said it will begin the 2021-22 academic year with a “blended approach” to its teaching, while King’s College London has promised to offer a mix of online and face-to-face provision “with as much on campus as circumstances allow”.

These institutions, and many others, are tailoring their courses to what is allowed at this stage of the pandemic as the demand from students for in-person teaching is still strong.

But universities are unlikely to be returning entirely to the old way of doing things, even in the long run, given their new investments in digital provision. Students and lecturers are left wondering—either with excitement or trepidation—what teaching and learning will look like after the Covid-19 crisis. 

“I suppose that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” says Andy McGregor, director of education technology at higher education IT service Jisc. “It’s almost impossible to predict”.

McGregor believes that although some people can’t wait for the old normality to resume, others will be emboldened by the success of online learning and will want to explore different models, such as hybrid provision.

“I think in the next couple of years we will see a real mixed bag of going back to the pre-pandemic models, some really interesting experimentation and I think some bold steps made by some universities to shift models,” he says. “It’s going to be a really interesting, vivid period of experimentation and change.”

‘Changed forever’

The departing chair of the Office for Students, Michael Barber, used his report on the future of digital education in March to argue that the pandemic had “changed the situation forever” and universities should use the disruption caused by Covid-19 as a “gravity assist” to improve on the progress already made.

Some universities are already taking the opportunity to explore online-only courses. At Durham University, a director is being sought to run its Durham Online digital education service, which will offer online programmes comprising degrees, short courses and course modules, and continuous professional development. The university hopes Durham Online will help it to become “a leader in high-quality, premium brand digital learning” as higher education recovers from the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, the University of Cambridge, famed for its tutorials and charming colleges, is investing in a major expansion of its online education. Through its Cambridge Advance Online programme, the university is looking to develop around 50 short courses over the next five years for professionals who want to upskill or change careers. Although students will not get face-to-face tuition, the online courses promise to “reflect the Cambridge experience and values” with low student-teacher ratios.

When the programme was announced in May, the university said “changed attitudes across society to online working and learning during the Covid-19 pandemic” had “galvanised” its ambitions on digital education.

McGregor thinks Cambridge’s advance into online courses “heralds the kind of experimentation we are going to see” in digital education after the pandemic. And one of the areas which is “most promising” is assessment.

Redefining exams

Efforts to recreate physical exams online during the pandemic have generally been unpopular among students, but some universities have experimented with different ways to assess students’ progress, such as 24-hour open books or coursework replacing exams. Once the dust from Covid-19 has settled, could this shift away from traditional exams continue?

“Many people aren’t mourning the loss of a three-hour written exam,” McGregor says. With few jobs requiring someone “to write solidly for three hours in an under-pressure situation” it is questionable what skills these exams are even giving students.

“If universities can find time to really redesign assessment, I think there are huge opportunities and benefits there,” he says.

Martin Weller, professor of educational technology at the Open University, agrees that assessment needs to be rethought if online education becomes a major part of universities’ courses. “The pandemic revealed weaknesses in terms of assessment,” he argues, particularly the reliance on exams at A-level and in universities.

Attempts to replicate in-person exams online were often “invasive and stressful” for students, he says, who could find themselves monitored on camera for hours at a time. 

Weller says this was an example of how higher education “isn’t taking the pandemic as a means of reassessing what it does, and instead just trying to replicate what it’s always done but online”. He warns that it “would be a missed opportunity if we just did that, not just for assessment but for everything”. 

New models, new costs

The pandemic has arguably made universities more open to online learning, but the economic models for in-person and online provision are different.

While face-to-face teaching requires buildings to house facilities and individual lecturers to teach each class, online courses often need multi-disciplinary teams to create the content, even if it can then be used often with few changes.

This is the problem with students’ demands for tuition fee refunds, argues Weller. “I’ve found some of those calls a bit frustrating,” he says, although he can understand why students are making them.

He says good online teaching and good face-to-face provision “cost about the same”. 

“You might save on buildings [with online learning] but you spend more on course production and those kinds of things, and support systems.”

Universities must also ensure no students are left behind in a shift to greater online education. “When you go to a campus university, you don’t appreciate it but actually the campus architecture is doing a lot of work for you,” he explains, as students physically go to lectures, visit the library and catch up with coursemates in a cafe.

Weller says lecturers must “deliberately design in” social interactions and group working sessions “that just happen on a campus university” when it comes to online education, which could help prevent students from dropping out of their courses.

According to Rebecca Montacute, research and policy manager at the Sutton Trust social mobility charity, universities must also consider how their developments in online learning could affect students who do not have a suitable environment in which to study.

When it comes to internal changes to universities’ provision, Montacute says they should assess “what the impact of that is likely to be for working class students, and for students who live at home…and looking specifically at whether or not the changes they are making will work for those students”.

In the excitement to try new models of online education, universities will also have to avoid a two-tier system that splits students into tribes of online and on-campus learners.

McGregor says institutions should ensure online students are “not seen as second-class citizens behind people studying face-to-face” and that they still have opportunities to socialise, access support and can trust their assessments.

“Hitting those notes across all of the curriculum design and the assessment side is going to be really important to make sure that online learning is something that isn’t seen as something you do if you can’t do face-to-face,” he says.

“I think there is demand for high-quality online learning, but that requires effort rather than just translating what we’ve already got”. 

The promise and pitfalls of AI

 Artificial intelligence is being thrown into the mix of nationwide experimentation in teaching. 

Andy McGregor, director of education technology at higher education IT service Jisc, says there are now technologies that can automate marking of papers; coach students to analyse their essays; and chat to students about their progress.

But as educators explore ways to embed these technologies into their classes, they face major problems including discrimination and who is ultimately responsible for decisions made by algorithms.

 “The potential there is huge,” McGregor says, “but the potential for disaster is also huge.”

Path from the Pandemic

The Path from the Pandemic initiative from Research Professional News is focusing on six critical areas where momentum is building for long-term change in the wake of the pandemic. These are: financial sustainability; a fairer sector; online opportunities; international partnerships; open research; and trust in science. Through the initiative we hope to help the sector explore a sustainable way forward. Have your say: #PathFromThePandemic on Twitter or email news@researchresearch.com.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight