Online tools: ‘Students want more of everything’

Developing online tools has been on universities’ to-do lists for quite some years. So, how ready is the sector for the next academic year and will their plans meet students’ needs?

Universities are wrestling with the question of how and when to return to campus. So far, only a handful have announced plans – and no wonder when they face a pandemic science is yet to fully understand and a government unsure of its exit strategy.

Although its plans were leaked rather than published, it has been revealed that the University of Cambridge will halt face-to-face lectures in favour of an online alternative for the next academic year – it also hopes to offer some face-to-face tutorials, so long as they meet the government’s guidelines. Similarly, the University of Manchester will cancel lectures for the first term but plans to offer students some face-to-face contact time.

Nottingham Trent’s vice-chancellor, Prof Edward Peck, confirmed the university’s intention to reopen its campus this September in a message posted online. He admitted “much of the detail is being worked through” but assured students that NTU will offer “a mixture of on-campus, in-class teaching alongside online learning” from September. He added that all students will have the opportunity to undertake work experience, volunteering and “a host of extra-curricular opportunities”.

Bolton University has the most ambitious plan to resume campus life. With the use of airport-style walk-through temperature scanners, schedule changes and mandatory face coverings, Bolton’s vice-chancellor, Prof George Holmes, reassured students and applicants they would be “able to study and engage in person regularly with other students and staff” on the “COVID-secure” and “fully operational” university campus.

So, I suppose there are only two solutions. One is that the government will give huge amounts of money, which I don’t think they will. Or some universities will merge – Dr Nicos Nicolaou

At the centre of this debate are two questions; what a safe level of physical contact looks like on a university campus, and what parts of the face-to-face campus experience can be transferred to the digital sphere. According to the Office for Students, many universities favour a “sophisticated blend” of both. But how substantial will the changes be, and will this prompt a long-term shift to online delivery?

When it comes to online tools, universities must transform, not translate, teaching

James Clay, head of higher education and student experience at network provider Jisc, says the organisation has hosted a series of webinars addressing the questions of those working in HE. As is perhaps no surprise, those initial weeks were spent ensuring staff had support and proper cybersecurity. Clay says no experience in his memory is comparable to the scale of the challenge universities faced in March. The circumstances during the foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001, which forced the closure of several agricultural colleges, is perhaps the closest.

“Universities were given very little time to plan. When we use words like ‘pivot’ or ‘change’ to describe distance learning, that is often very different from the experience of university staff and students. Universities had to switch delivery very quickly as an emergency response, not just online, but also for remotely and from home.”

The conversation with members has quickly turned to what comes next. Blended learning – or hybrid learning, as Clay prefers to discuss – is the hot topic of conversation. Clay warns that many universities may be thinking about the transition in the wrong way; a “translation” rather than a “transformation” of services, is the way he describes it.

“Some are approaching the question of how to achieve this change by simply applying pre-COVID-19 working practices to the digital sphere. Moving face-to-face lectures and seminars to video conferencing, for example, or setting exams to be sat at home on the computer. These new practices simply recreate what you do in the physical environment with the virtual environment.”

This strategy may fall short because, according to Clay, “translation doesn’t create an ideal learning experience for students”.

Students miss out on the bits a streamed lecture can’t replace – large, group conversations are hard to recreate as naturally or as successfully online as in person.

“I think most people realise that in an emergency you can make a lot of progress. But the reality is that for September, whether you have a hybrid or blended programme – or indeed if there is a second peak and a further lockdown – you may need to align learning more heavily to the online space. Our university members are asking how that can be achieved.”

Coventry University, which was the fourth-largest recruiter of international students last year, has recently introduced a learning experience platform, which it says goes one step further than a virtual learning environment in putting conversations and messaging threads at the centre of teaching and learning.

Some are approaching the question of how to achieve this change by simply applying pre-COVID-19 working practices to the digital sphere. Moving face-to-face lectures and seminars to video conferencing, for example – James Clay

The university said the announcement makes it the first of its kind globally to commit to an “active, collaborative, mobile-first” learning platform. Coventry has scaled-up activities and expects 40,000 students across its five regional UK campuses to use the platform from September 2020.

In contrast, Durham University was forced to drop plans to radically overhaul its curriculum after opposition from some members of its senate. The university had planned to offer courses online from September 2020 after an internal audit revealed that a third of undergraduate programmes had no online offering. The transition would have seen a quarter of modules suspended for a year.

Just as it can’t be assumed that all universities have digital capacity ready, it should not be assumed that all students have access to a quiet working space, good wifi or laptops. Some universities are considering providing 4G dongles to students with poor connectivity and Jisc is considering ways to broaden Eduroam beyond the confines of the campus to students’ homes.

The BBC has highlighted the plight of UK students who have returned home from a year abroad cut short by the lockdown. These students are waking at strange hours to try to keep pace with their international providers’ working hours. Supporting students from overseas could well be a far harder feat to pull off.

Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, told ET’s sister publication, University Business, that there was a wealth of experience within the sector that can be shared between institutions. She added that for years, UK HE providers have provided distance MBAs and micro-credentials to students around the globe. The skills and tools to do that exist within the sector and she remains confident students will see the benefit.

“If we want to persuade international students who are on the fence to plump to study [with a UK university next year], we need to prove to them that the students who are doing it now are finding it satisfactory.

“I think the other side of it is making sure that we do the best we can to deliver online distance learning so that international students who might find that they are taking some portion of their degree online because of COVID-19 don’t feel short-changed.

“I know universities have been doing extraordinary things in the last few weeks to get their online distance learning into shape and I would expect any university to be thinking very hard about how they can build on that experience, to make sure that in the autumn, they’re offering something on a bigger scale,” Ms Stern said.

‘All reasonable effort’

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, has repeatedly instructed universities to make “all reasonable effort” to offer students the best education they can. She has warned universities not to ‘bung stuff online’. Clay points out that concerns around online provision go deeper than just replacing learning, covering all the other important aspects of the university experience.

In the rush to offer something to students, Clay suggests universities should pause and consider how to ensure students are engaged with what comes next. Helpfully, none of the tactics to ensure screen-gazing students remain engaged are new, or revolutionary. Using the chat function in lectures, creating videos and encouraging students to blog about their work or research are three frequently offered examples. Creating secure, single sign-on systems for students will also help streamline the process and help students navigate their resources with ease. In short, distance learning is not a byword for less teaching. Academics will need to be given time to maintain channels and be in close contact with students, who understandably may feel cut off from campus.

Do universities have the money and time for online tools?

Dr Nicos Nicolaou, founder and chief executive of Unicaf, says UK universities have hesitated to take the plunge into developing online degrees because of the cost. “Going online is quite an expensive operation – you have to invest a lot of money in the beginning. This is why UK universities are behind American providers, because every time they tried online, they ended up spending a lot of money.”

The Unicaf CEO, who has worked in higher education for decades, says at first, online degrees were primarily a commercial venture marked by patchy quality. That lingering impression may have harmed the validity of online learning in the minds of some.

Dr Nicolaou also says that within much of HE, “there’s a misunderstanding” about how to teach online still, adding: “What most universities are currently doing is teaching students remotely – not online.” He also says universities face heavy expense to make this transition.

“First there was Brexit and now this is a further financial blow. So, I suppose there are only two solutions. One is that the government will give huge amounts of money, which I don’t think they will. Or some universities will merge. This has happened in the past in Wales and has been trailed by a recent Universities UK report.

“There will be a lot of pressure on universities for flexible learning, but I don’t think the majority of your universities, probably, have the expertise or the financial backing to do this properly.”

Dr Nicolaou says universities need the help of instructional designers, fully online student support services, increased interactivity and digital social spaces – like virtual cafes. The point he is keen to underline is that this requires money and time.

There will be a lot of pressure on universities for flexible learning, but I don’t think the majority of your universities, probably, have the expertise or the financial backing to do this properly – Dr Nicos Nicolaou

But an unknown quantity in this equation is how long lockdown will last. Will the crisis force universities to re-think their plans long term? There’s also no real way of knowing the long-term influence this will have on student behaviour, but as Clay says: “People don’t just sign up to Manchester University just because of the teaching. They also go for the city.”

A travel-hungry and globally engaged younger demographic is unlikely to be content with distance learning alone. The rising number of international students demonstrates that. As a senior academic from the University of Liverpool recalled to an enraptured audience at a conference long before coronavirus: “Students don’t want more online learning at the expense of face-to-face contact time. Students want more of everything.” So, a hybrid model which provides a tailored offering to all students could be a popular offer long term.

Will the lockdown change HE forever? Perhaps not. Does it signpost the sector to its weaknesses? Definitely. Perhaps the sector will offer a more diverse range of students “more of everything” when this crisis passes.

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