edXDigital Universities Week UK 2022: In defence of hybrid learning

Digital Universities Week UK 2022: In defence of hybrid learning

Speaking at the inaugural event at Digital Universities Week UK 2022, a panel explained why hybrid learning was here to stay and how higher education can embrace its potential

The opening night of Times Higher Education’s Digital Universities Week UK 2022 opened with a discussion that set the tone for the week ahead. Delegates from higher education and technology sectors came together to hear an endorsement of the potential of digital teaching and learning.

Anant Agarwal, founder of edX and chief open education officer at 2U, said higher education should look to the consumer-driven innovation seen in the telecoms industry to achieve similarly transformative models.

“Universities and companies need to work together,” Agarwal said. “Professors need to focus on things like pedagogies and learning, knowledge transfer, research. How do we best interact with our learners and engage them? That’s what you should be focusing on, and then partner with companies that can then help scale, marketing, maybe careers services, providing various types of tech platforms and things like that.”

Responding to the UK education secretary Nadhim Zahawi’s remarks that universities had to go back to face-to-face teaching, Andy Hancock, CEO of FutureLearn, said there was no binary choice. Ultimately, universities had to deliver value for money for students, whether classes were conducted in person or delivered online.

“You can get great value for money by having a blended, hybrid approach,” Hancock said. “For me, it’s about blended learning and a hybrid approach, and being able to show the learner outcomes that you are delivering through the blended approach, and correlate it back to value for money or return on investment.”

Having already embraced digital tools at scale in response to the pandemic, higher education is now in a position to see what works and to refine its digital strategies. It also has evidence of how popular hybrid models are among today’s students.

“In terms of flexibility, all the surveys are showing that students on campus want to learn online,” said Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera. “They want the flexibility, the access to courses, the ability to pause, to do all sorts of things. Hybrid is going to make a huge amount of sense.”

Widening participation in higher education was another key reason that digital learning would continue to evolve. Insisting that students must be on campus to learn is to ignore the improved access that online learning offers students.

“I would challenge anyone who says everybody needs to get back on campus,” Maggioncalda said. “What about the 95 per cent of people who can’t do that? They don’t have access to transportation. They are working two jobs. Or maybe they don’t know the language, or can’t leave their families. They can’t go to the campus.”

There was also an opportunity for higher education and edtech providers to design innovative programmes that would address the needs of lifelong learners, many of whom are dependent on online education. Deeper collaboration could help to tailor curricula to the needs of the 21st-century workplace and deliver a top-class student experience.

The panel spoke of the importance of taking a learner-centric perspective, creating support systems and curricula that would enhance engagement and the sense of belonging that is central to the student experience. Successful hybrid models would make space for those human touchpoints.

Universities needed to be nimble in executing their digital transformations. There would be challenges ahead, and the capacity to recognise how the world has changed and to react accordingly was vital.

“I like to joke that universities have changed more in the past 10 years than in many hundreds of years,” said Agarwal. “As professors and educators, we need to listen to what our learners are saying.”

The panel:

  • Anant Agarwal, founder, edX; chief open education officer, 2U
  • Sara Custer, Campus editor, Times Higher Education (chair)
  • Andy Hancock, CEO, FutureLearn
  • Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO, Coursera

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