Online learning: the foundation of an enduring digital transformation

Four ways online learning can support higher education during the pandemic

Amidst the continuing disruption, education’s digital transformation is well under way. The European Commission’s newly announced Digital Education Action Plan 2021–2027 took lessons learned from the crisis and laid out plans for a high-performing digital education ecosystem. This is the ‘new normal’.

The majority of UK universities are now formally implementing some form of online learning, making now a good time to reflect on the lessons learned so far from the use of this new medium.

1. Providing more job-relevant skills

The pandemic has placed enormous pressure on job opportunities. At 4.5%, the UK unemployment rate is at its highest level since 2017. Under-25s are also more likely to have been furloughed than any other age group. It’s now more critical than ever for students to graduate with high-demand skills to gain employment in areas that emerge from this crisis. In other words, educators must prioritise job-relevant content that focuses on marketable skills students can use in interviews and on the job.

2. Protecting academic standards

During the transition to emergency remote teaching, faculty and staff have been under the added pressure of maintaining the same academic integrity and rigour that their on-campus programmes are known for. But if the online learning experience is to meet the same academic rigour, it must evolve and adapt to the new medium.

Universities must also raise awareness and understanding around academic integrity and misconduct in online settings.
And above all, they must administer secure, high-stakes exams with robust mechanisms to auto-detect plagiarism. The good news is that it’s easy to address such challenges with the innovative use of technology.

3. Saving time and improving the student experience

With online learning now core to the student experience, universities need an effective way to create and curate high-quality online curricula. New tools and technologies must be easy to use and integrate with the many other tools that make up the remote learning experience.

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One of the main reasons why UK students are increasingly uncertain about enrolling in a programme right now is due to the lack of clarity. For this reason, students need a reliable resource like an interactive intranet where they can look for the latest information. Faculty and staff also need a similar infrastructure.

4. Overcoming the digital divide with mobile

An Institute for Fiscal Studies report shows that leading UK universities are missing a chance to focus more on improving access to education for under-represented groups. In 2018–19, for example, UK students from the poorest households in the UK accounted for only 2% of undergraduates in economics at Russell Group universities. Education is a necessity and online education can play a crucial role in improving access.

At Coursera, over this period, we’ve seen mobile becoming an incredibly important resource to improve on this. Students learning from their mobile devices rose to 70% during the pandemic. It makes sense – with mobile, students can download, synchronise, take notes with highlights, and essentially study offline or in ways that are optimised for low data consumption. And with the government recently announcing they are slashing allocations of laptops for disadvantaged students by 80%, bridging the digital divide will be a growing issue in the months ahead.

The pandemic has been a catalyst for universities to make online learning the core of their student experience, but this is just the start of a long-term digital transformation. By focusing on the learnings made throughout this initial period of adaptation, online education can become integral to the future of the UK’s education system, delivering greater access and impact in the years to come.


You might also like: One in three teachers ‘unsupported’ with online learning – YouGov survey


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