‘We must close the substantial gap in digital education’

David Maguire, interim principal and VC of the University of Dundee and chair of the Jisc-led Learning and Teaching Reimagined initiative, looks at how digital teaching and learning can help universities respond to COVID-19

This is a challenging time for the higher education (HE) sector, but leaders are working together, embracing digital to create positive, future-proofed and supportive experiences for all.

Through my involvement with Learning and Teaching Reimagined, an initiative imagining the future of HE, I’ve seen this collaboration. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit UK universities, and in the months since, the sector has rallied together to close the substantial gap between where we were in terms of digital education and where we need to be.

Institutional variation

Part of the challenge is that the UK HE landscape is uneven: when we went into lockdown in March, there were highly variable online learning and teaching responses, and that led to differential student experiences. Some universities were already specialists in digital education, while others had quite a journey ahead. A survey of more than 20,500 university students, conducted by Jisc between October 2019 and May 2020, found more than three-quarters (77%) rated the quality of digital teaching and learning on their course as ‘good’, ‘excellent’ or ‘best imaginable’. Universities overall are embracing online learning with vigour and refining their digital presence at great pace. The progress they’ve made has been impressive, thanks to the energy they’ve put into developing their institutions’ digital presence.

Listening to students

At the start of the COVID period, there was a high degree of scepticism among learners about online and blended learning, but students have since embraced the ideas and become more familiar with online approaches and technologies. There has been widespread concern within universities to mitigate the differential impacts of online learning on disadvantaged student groups in particular. More broadly, many learners of all backgrounds and circumstances remain concerned about missing out on university life.

While face coverings and social distancing are now the norm, theories about how the sector can best protect students and deliver the experiences they seek have not yet been widely tested in practice. University leaders embrace digital transformation as a feature of their institutional strategy, but changes in institutional culture are, arguably, the greatest challenges ahead.

University leaders embrace digital transformation as a feature of their institutional strategy, but changes in institutional culture are, arguably, the greatest challenges ahead

Investment in digital

Another big challenge remains; senior leaders tend to be more familiar with bricks-and-mortar environments and with research and teaching in-person than they are with online work. As a rough estimate, the ratio of spending on digital estates versus physical estates has been around 1:10 – so for every £10m universities spend on physical estate, they spend £1m on digital.

The events of the last several months suggest this needs to even out, and some would argue it should even tip in favour of the digital estate for the next few years.

A focus on teaching and learning design

Through my work with the Learning and Teaching Reimagined initiative, I’ve seen university leaders collaborate in creating a post-COVID vision for the sector. The heart of this work is not about technology or skills; it’s about pedagogy and learning design.

Those things are as critical to online as they are to in-person learning and teaching. The digital infrastructure that powers and connects universities, facilitates cloud technologies, protects staff and student data, and supports digital innovation also needs investment.

Celebrating success

As students return to campus, the sector is asking whether blended learning can survive contact with COVID-19. Many institutions have consequently put adaptability, agility and flexibility of delivery at the top of their priorities. The landscape has changed dramatically, and one positive outcome I’ve seen has been closer collaboration across the sector.

Join Jisc’s webinar on 4 November for exclusive first access to both the Learning and Teaching Reimagined report and tools that have been co-created to support universities in 2021 and beyond.

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