Blended learning here to stay, say UK sector leaders

Pandemic to have lasting impact, but vice-chancellors warn of challenges ahead

November 4, 2020
Source: iStock

Blended learning is here to stay, even after the coronavirus pandemic, according to UK university leaders.

In a survey of executive leaders responsible for learning and teaching conducted by the sector technology agency Jisc, 73 per cent of respondents said they expected that at least a quarter of their teaching would be delivered online in 2030.

Ten per cent of those surveyed expected three-quarters of their learning to be delivered online in the next decade, 35 per cent said they expected the balance to be split 50-50, and 28 per cent expected to offer a quarter of their teaching online.

Only 3 per cent said they expected their teaching to be done totally in-person in 2030.

The survey, of 40 senior leaders, also showed that there had been little teaching online before March 2020, when the UK went into its first national lockdown, with 45 per cent of respondents saying they offered no online teaching, and 55 per cent saying it represented a quarter of their output.

The survey found that 70 per cent of leaders said that three-quarters of teaching would be online in 2020-21, while a quarter would be in-person.

The survey also showed that almost all lectures are expected to be delivered online in 2020-21, with seminars and tutorials delivered by a blend of face-to-face and online and with face-to-face delivery prioritised for workshops, laboratory practical work and studio work.

Speaking at a Jisc panel to launch the report, vice-chancellors said that offering more online education would be a positive move for the sector but warned that there were still challenges to address.

Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said that while one of the benefits of blended learning was an improvement in student choice, universities also had a responsibility to help develop students’ socialisation and sense of community.

“The big challenge in redesigning teaching and learning over the next decade is how simultaneously to attend to individual learning and the affective emotional, social and collective learning, which have been so important in socialisation and professional formation in higher education,” he said.

Peter Mathieson, vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, agreed. Offering more digital education provided numerous ways to improve teaching and learning, but another element of student experience “is what happens outside the classroom, and we mustn’t lose those experiences”, he said.

This was echoed in Jisc’s survey, which found that 90 per cent of leaders thought online learning did not offer the social experience that students want.

Professor Mathieson also emphasised, as did others on the panel, worries about equity of access to technology. “The biggest issue for me is the phenomenon of digital poverty,” he said. “The risk with a move to digital education is increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

In its report, Jisc calls on universities to ensure that inclusivity and accessibility are key parts of curriculum redesign and also encourages institutions, alongside government and other funders, to provide additional funding to prevent digital poverty.

Alec Cameron, Aston University’s vice-chancellor, agreed that a positive from more digital education was an increase in student choice – being able to decide when, where and how they learn, in-person or online – but warned that the sector would need to work together to determine its capacity for that choice.

“Once you offer choice, it’s very hard to turn that off, but one of the things that will be a challenge with personalisation is the business model for ultimate student choice,” he said. “There is a cost associated with different forms of delivery, and putting all modes of delivery probably won’t fit within the funding arrangements of universities.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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