Only a digital drive will allow us to capture the boom in STEM interest

We certainly don’t want to turn away thousands of enthusiastic STEM students due to a lack of capacity, says Steve Davies

Steve Davies's avatar
University of South Wales
26 Apr 2021
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Huge uptake of science subjects is expected in the wake of the pandemic, and we must utilise online learning to serve the demand.

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There’s no doubt that since the onset of Covid the profile of scientists and medics the world over has rocketed. Healthcare workers are regarded as heroes, scientists direct government policy and those who created our vaccines have been able to perform the previously unthinkable by turning around not one but four successful vaccines for a novel virus in less than a year.

As a result, it has been reported that more young people than ever are expressing an interest in studying STEM subjects. A survey by the British Science Association has revealed a marked uplift in young people (14- to 18-year-olds) interested in a career in STEM, with 37 per cent of young people now more likely to consider a scientific career. Research from the Institution of Engineering and Technology reveals that 63 per cent and 52 per cent of 10- to 18-year-olds are now considering careers in medicine or engineering, respectively.

Interestingly, science’s raised profile has also impacted younger children, as data reveal that the STEM toys market is expanding, largely fuelled by coding toys, with the US market poised to grow by $473.78 million (£341.2 million) between 2020 and 2024.

All of which, of course, is excellent news for a sector that has always struggled to recruit enough new learners to fuel demand, but there is a very real problem in all this positive news for STEM − the issue of teaching everyone who wants to study.

At present, the capacity on STEM courses in our traditional bricks-and-mortar universities is finite and cannot be exponentially increased − at least not easily or cheaply.

This is a clear problem in a world where applications to study STEM courses are expected to boom over the next few years. After all, we don’t want to be in the situation where thousands of enthusiastic STEM students are having to be turned away at a time when they will be needed the most.

So what’s the solution?

The only way to significantly increase teaching capacity without creating more buildings and recruiting more teachers is to take part, or all, of the learning journey online. Of course, this is not a novel concept, and it has long been understood by universities that online courses have the potential to increase learning capacity by moving some processes off the physical campus. However, the previous dogma was that students preferred an in-person learning experience. The Covid pandemic has shifted this paradigm, with both students and universities appreciating the opportunities that online learning can bring.

Consequently, it’s unlikely that universities will revert to absolute residential learning, with a hybrid flexible (hyflex) position likely to evolve.

As someone who has been at the forefront of online learning for more than 20 years, I see this as no bad thing. In fact, I believe that the Covid crisis has been the catalyst that traditional universities have long needed to update their teaching practices and digitise their offerings, at least in part, to ensure their longer-term futures.

So if we know why a hybrid future could be the future of learning, how can it be done well?

The evolution of videoconferencing software has been timely, with Webex, Zoom and Teams often coming to the rescue of pedagogical teaching sessions by enabling the delivery of lectures online. However, it’s important to use the internet to its fullest potential if student learning is to be optimised. Developing communities via discussion forums where tutors act more as mentors can go a significant way to complementing such webinars. There are plenty of platforms freely available, such as Moodle, capable of doing this job.

Similarly, assessment is a large part of “teaching”, yet, by definition, the teacher is no longer teaching but marking. Moving to online assessment software can optimise the time the tutor is able to spend with the student while also providing more objective marking.

While the delivery of practical sessions is considered immovable from the residential environment, particularly for STEM courses, artificial intelligence, gamification and, especially, virtual reality mean that some of the in-person, practical requirements of such courses could be conducted virtually.

Away from the focus on technological advances, online delivery can also be disruptive for the teaching faculty, STEM and otherwise. Students are very familiar with TED talks and how the best lecturers articulate their subjects to make them engaging and particularly informative. Online learning may see the rise of the “super tutor”, where universities could develop remote faculties or indeed club together to arrange lectures by an outstanding visiting lecturer, with students then supported by further one-to-one sessions from within. The development of a virtual faculty with Nobel laureates lecturing to thousands of students from tens of universities may not be that far off.

To make all this reality, significant infrastructural investment in new STEM facilities, technology and teachers will be required. The integration of online with residential will help to accommodate the expected surge in student numbers – and the sooner the establishment appreciates this, the quicker the potential of STEM education can be delivered.

Steve Davies is professor of medical education at the University of South Wales, a consultant physician in Cardiff and the founding director of Learna, a provider of postgraduate online education.


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