UK universities’ digital teaching must be far more imaginative

Sir Michael Barber’s blueprint can help digital delivery enhance learning rather than acting as an inconvenient stopgap, says David Puttnam

February 25, 2021
Online learning
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The first thing that strikes me in reading Sir Michael Barber’s new report into digital teaching and learning during the Covid-19 pandemic is how incredibly encouraging it will be to practitioners.

The publication of Barber’s report – by the body he chairs, England’s Office for Students – comes at a time when higher education institutions the world over are scrambling to adapt their pedagogical models to the online environment.

One of the report’s most resounding messages is that simple “adaptation” won’t cut it. If we are serious about taking advantage of technology that will allow digital learning to thrive, we must be far more imaginative, we must invent something new – something that embraces all the possibilities the digital sphere has to offer. If we get this right, digital delivery can enhance learning rather than acting as an inconvenient stopgap as we itch to get back to the classroom or lecture hall.

Papering face-to-face lesson plans onto a digital format cannot possibly be the answer.

For the past 10 years, I have been teaching film, leadership and creativity to students online, at universities everywhere from Australia via Singapore to Sunderland. Despite everything I thought I’d learned as chancellor of the Open University, I discovered that digital learning was still seen as a poor relation to the “real thing”, and that few in higher education seriously contemplated incorporating it into their daily practice.

My approach to digital teaching in those early years involved a lot of trial and error – it was no surprise to find that small groups worked better than large ones. More surprising was that levels of engagement could, if anything, be enhanced. I also discovered that I could only be as effective as the course leader I was working with – we had to function as a team.

Over the past decade, one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching online has been the sheer diversity of students with whom I have been lucky enough to engage. Thanks to my ever-evolving Cisco Webex connectivity, I can sit in rural West Cork and share film clips, music tracks and archival footage with students in Brisbane, Munich and Belfast, debating, discussing and exchanging ideas in real time.

In his introduction to the report, Sir Michael talks about the “warm enthusiasm” he encountered from across the sector as he conducted his review. Indeed, students and teachers have often described the online model as feeling more personal and more accessible, especially when compared to sitting in (or standing in front of) a vast lecture hall.

The potential for greatly improved access to leading scholars and practitioners anywhere in the world is certainly something to be enthusiastic about. I invite “guests” into my seminars, and all that’s required of them is a laptop, decent connectivity and an hour of their time. No complicated scheduling, no air fares and soulless hotel rooms – in fact, far greater convenience and flexibility at appreciably less cost. Most important of all, the students love coming face to face with the heroes and heroines of their own particular discipline.

But the evident enthusiasm of Sir Michael and his colleagues can only get us so far. What is special about this report is the blueprint it provides for best practice. Its recommendations for immediate action (on page 15) provide something of a how-to guide for universities thinking about significant and possibly overdue improvements to their digital offering.

It is vital that practitioners be encouraged to develop the skills and confidence they need to move seamlessly between the online and offline worlds. It’s equally vital that students have a seriously influential voice in the strategic planning that goes into the next generation of teaching and learning practice.

Of course, beyond that, interdisciplinary and inter-institutional conversations need to take place to ensure that best practice results in a rising tide that lifts all boats. As I have learned from many years in the film industry, sharing creative ideas is always the best way to keep a sector innovative and alive.

For me, a constantly inspiring example worth following is the development, over this past decade, of the New York Times. In its use of embedded video, long reads and brilliant graphics, it represents a daily case study of the type of evolution I believe the digital world can bring to delivery of higher education. What matters most is that, in a post-truth world, at no time have these changes ever been allowed to compromise the paper’s journalistic standards.

I’m convinced that we in education can do the same.  

David Puttnam is a film producer and educator. He is the former chancellor of the Open University and the University of SunderlandHe sits as a Labour Peer in the House of Lords.

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