Let’s not allow tradition to stifle innovation in higher education
The UK education secretary has said there are ‘no excuses’ for online learning at universities – but there are many reasons to persevere, says Lil Bremermann-Richard
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Britain’s higher education sector could miss a major opportunity to cement its reputation as a world leader if innovative online learning measures introduced during the pandemic are phased out to accommodate calls to return to a fully face-to-face university experience.
While leading universities across the globe use online tools to enhance their offerings and create a world-class educational experience for their students, there’s an embedded school of thought in the UK (and elsewhere) that online learning is of inherently poorer quality or provides a poorer experience. As a nation with ambitions to be digitally driven, we should realise that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
If we want our students to really thrive and get the best value for money for their education, shouldn’t technology play a part? Many countries successfully provide a blended student experience. Lectures with real-time online interactions and discussions are recorded. Online discussion boards are hives of activity. Student engagement is monitored through enthusiasm and insight rather than just physical attendance.
Before the pandemic, many institutions’ online offerings fell short, limited to recorded lectures that existed as little more than outdated virtual filing cabinets. Of course, face-to-face learning is a vital part of the university experience, and it must remain so. And the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, is 100 per cent correct to call for universities to advise students how much face-to-face teaching they will get before they start their degrees. But to say there’s no longer any excuse for teaching remotely and that online lectures should be scrapped undermines the innovative measures introduced during the past two years. It’s based on the same old-school thinking that used to dominate the UK’s remote work conversation. During the pandemic, employees proved time and again that they could be trusted to work productively from somewhere that wasn’t an office.
If universities were to continue offering the option of online learning, giving students the choice to attend lectures online or in person, wouldn’t that help them develop skills of self-discipline and self-motivation? Aren’t these the very life skills that we want to instil in our students? A blended education experience also provides students with the flexibility to balance study with other activities such as part-time work. At a time when sectors such as retail and hospitality (among others) are struggling to fill roles and fuel the economic recovery, more flexible university course structures could help balance the labour market.
But perhaps the biggest problem with walking away from innovations implemented over the past two years is that it downplays the incredible amount of expertise and academic rigour that goes into designing these online learning tools. The pandemic acted as a catalyst for moving towards an online space that engages students, enriches learning and improves accessibility.
The vast majority of online courses offered by universities and digital providers involve skilled input from academics and technology specialists alike. They work tirelessly to ensure that online tools are easy to use, hard to cheat and, most importantly, help students acquire the knowledge needed to gain their qualification. This collaboration between leading academics and tech experts should be celebrated in the same way it is in other parts of the economy such as fintech (financial technology).
Nobody with any credibility in the education sector thinks that videoconferencing tools should be a wholesale replacement for lecture theatres, classrooms or laboratories. Or that tradition should be thrown out the window. Rather, universities should be given the opportunity to continue innovating. If we are to revert to an online offering that is nothing more than a dumping ground for coursework or lecture notes, we risk creating a cohort of graduates that lag behind their international counterparts. To maintain our world-leading reputation for education, we must offer a modern education experience that provides the best possible outcomes for students. If we fail to do so, students both domestically and abroad will start to look elsewhere for their higher education.
Transparency around online services and how they form part of the overall experience is key, but we should also be proud of the innovations from the past few years, and the resulting outcome offered to students must be advertised.
Lil Bremermann-Richard is chief executive of Oxford International Education Group.