More than half of students lacked access to online materials during lockdown, OfS survey suggests

Survey raises big questions for the sector ahead of the start of the new term in a few weeks

More than half of students lacked access to “appropriate online course materials” during lockdown, a new survey by the Office for Students (OfS) suggests, as the regulator warns universities about the risk of digital exclusion next term.

The survey commissioned by the higher education regulator asked over 1,400 students to review digital teaching and learning during the lockdown. The results were released to coincide with the launch of a “major” new OfS review of remote education at English universities.

According to the poll, 56% of students lacked access to appropriate online course materials, with one in 10 (9%) ‘severely’ impacted by this gap in provision.

Although more than a third (34%) were dissatisfied with the quality of teaching during the lockdown, the majority (51%) told the OfS they were content with the quality of course delivery. However, 46% of students were satisfied with their overall course experience, compared to 43% who were not.

The survey also suggests 71% lacked access to a quiet study space, 18% lacked access to a computer or laptop and 52% were impacted by slow or unreliable internet connections.

The review, launched by Sir Michael Barber, will consider how digital technology has been used to deliver remote education since the pandemic began, as well as how high-quality digital teaching and learning can be delivered at scale in the future. The OfS has called on students’ unions to submit evidence to its review.

Sir Michael said the review was needed to identify “what has worked well in recent months, what methods could be enhanced further, and identifying long-term opportunities for innovation that will benefit generations of students into the future”.

He vowed to put “student access” at the “core” of his review and warned disadvantaged students risked being “left behind in the rush for online innovation”.

The fact that more than half of students lacked suitable online course materials will raise big questions for the higher education sector ahead of the start of term in a few weeks; the return to campus and the ‘blended learning’ on offer will be scrutinised heavily by students’ groups and the media in the coming weeks and months.

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On Monday, the University of St Andrews told the estimated 10,000 students set to move to its campus in Fife that just 10% of contact time would be ‘in-person’ for the first seven weeks of term, with face-to-face contact time only likely to increase if coronavirus restrictions ease. The lack of a national asymptomatic test and trace programme was cited by the university as a key reason for its decision.

Although a survey by Universities UK suggested that 97% of universities would offer face-to-face teaching, the survey did not ask providers to specify precisely how much teaching will be conducted remotely.

A group of senior scientists recently warned universities against in-person teaching. The Independent Sage committee recommended 100% remote teaching for all but lab-based and practical degree courses.

During a hearing of the education select committee in May, the chief executive and chairman of the OfS, Nicola Dandridge and Sir Michael respectively, were challenged on the organisation’s role in monitoring distance learning during the lockdown.

Speaking to Dandridge in the virtual committee hearing, select committee chair Robert Halfon said: “You’ll have heard my questions in the session before about whether or not surveys are being done as to how many university students are accessing online education. Are you doing that now? Are you looking at the individual quality of online education provided by those universities and how they’re helping disadvantaged students?”

Not satisfied with the answers provided by either Dandridge or Sir Michael, Mr Halfon later said: “What I’m not clear about from your answers is how you are literally holding the institutions to account in this regard, specifically in terms of disadvantaged students.”

This article was originally published on our sister site, University Business


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