University leaders are performing a delicate balancing act at the moment. As campuses reopen, welcoming a million students back on site, principals and vice-chancellors are weighing the need to minimise risk to public health against the continued provision of high-quality education and research, and the financial sustainability of their institution. That’s challenging – but by co-developing guidance with sector bodies and government, and by working together to improve outcomes for students and make universities more efficient, great progress is being made.
Through my involvement with Learning and Teaching Reimagined, a sector-wide initiative imagining the future of higher education, I’ve identified seven key areas I believe need to be addressed:
1. A recognition of variable experience
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit UK universities, there were highly variable online learning and teaching responses that led to differential student experiences. Some universities were already specialists in digital education, while others had quite a journey ahead. The sector identified the need to rally together to seek to close the substantial gap between where we were and where we need to be. University leaders must continue to embrace online learning, putting considerable energy and resource into developing their institutions’ digital work over the coming months and years.
2. Developing staff skills
To get more programmes and content successfully online, universities must first enhance the skills of their staff. Thankfully, the will to engage appears to be there. Staff, by and large, have pitched in and been willing to develop their skills and create online materials. Senior leaders must follow suit; the majority I’ve talked to worry they don’t have the knowledge or skills to know what digital, online and blended learning really mean for them, or what investments will reap the greatest benefit. We need more experts. University senior leadership teams always include a DVC/PVC for education, and ones for research and resources, etc. – but who has a DVC/PVC for digital?
3. Hearing students’ concerns
Student opinions have changed through the COVID period. Initially, there was a high degree of skepticism, but students have since embraced the ideas of online and blended learning. Partly, I think, because of health and safety issues, but also because they’ve become more familiar with online approaches and technologies. However, many do remain concerned about a fear of missing out (FOMO) on university life. While wearing face coverings and social distancing are being normalised, theories about how the sector can best protect students and deliver the experiences they seek have not been tested in practice.
As university leaders start to accept digital transformation as an inevitable feature of their institutional strategy (which is a big step in itself), they’re also digesting the importance of people and cultural change. Dealing with people and institutional culture are, arguably, the greatest challenges ahead as they require that we identify, embrace and nurture technology in a way many haven’t previously. There will be both long-term and short-term adjustments.
4. Considering the impact of online learning on disadvantaged groups
There has been widespread concern within universities to mitigate the differential impacts of online learning on disadvantaged student groups. Some notable approaches include remote laptop imaging and fulfilment, online mental health services, online widening access and language classes, and access to hardship funds. For some disadvantaged students, online learning is beneficial because they don’t have to leave the house, can study when they are able and at their own pace, and review material until they are happy with it. The sector has been quick to identify issues and benefits, and must continue to offer support to all learners.
5. Investment in the digital estate
A big challenge remains in how we educate senior leaders who are familiar with bricks-and-mortar environments and with research and teaching in-person, but who, often, aren’t so comfortable or knowledgeable when it comes to online work. As a rough estimate the ratio of spending on digital estates versus physical estates has tended to be 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 that this needs to get to parity, and some would argue it should even tip in favour of the digital estate for the next several years.
6. A focus on pedagogy and learning design
Through my work with the Learning and Teaching Reimagined initiative, which is led by the education and technology not-for-profit Jisc, I’ve seen university leaders coming together to create 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, must also be invested in.
7. Celebrating success
Universities are enhancing and embracing online learning with vigour, and refining their digital presence at a great pace. They are to be commended on the progress they’ve made and should supported in their continued best efforts.
As students return to campus, the sector is asking whether blended learning can survive contact with COVID-19. How will university students and staff deal with local or national outbreaks? Many institutions have consequently put adaptability, agility and flexibility of delivery at the top of their educational priority lists. This is a time for university leaders to think carefully about their short-, medium- and long-term digital futures. The landscape has changed dramatically, and one positive outcome, has been closer collaboration across the sector. I’m proud to see university leaders working together towards a tech-enabled future of education. Ideas are emerging, and I see higher education leaders are pulling together principles, technologies and pedagogies that can help UK universities find solutions to the new challenges they face.
About the Author
David Maguire is interim principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee and chair of Learning and Teaching Reimagined, a cross-sector initiative led by the education and technology not-for-profit, Jisc.