Digital teaching and learning: the opportunity

The review of digital teaching and learning I am leading on behalf of the OfS has taken off in the last two months. The call for evidence has just closed (though further submissions are always welcome) and conveys one message above all others – excitement, opportunity and the chance for real transformation.

In 2012, the Oscar-winning film producer, Lord David Puttnam, in a speech at MIT in which he reviewed the degree of innovation in teaching and learning, expressed his disappointment. ‘It’s tragic’, he said, ‘because, by my reading, should we fail to radically change our approach to education, the same cohort we’re attempting to “protect” could find that their entire future is scuttled by our timidity.’

In the shadow of the pandemic, these words seem more prophetic than ever. Now, surely, we need to recognise that this is not a time for timidity. The future of an entire generation is clearly at stake; we have an obligation to act with vision and imagination. Happily, our call to evidence has revealed that there is indeed much bold thinking across the higher education sector. The rapid shift to digital teaching and learning in the spring of this year was impressive in its way. One vice-chancellor told me it had resulted in more progress in a month that had been made in the previous five years.

But it also inevitably revealed limitations. Digital provision has been variable and sometimes the technology was not as reliable as it needed to be. Some students had difficulty getting access in any case, putting the issue of digital poverty firmly on the agenda. One way or another, though, people made it work as well as they could.

Once that immediate dash for digital was over, university teachers and administrators turned their minds to learning the lessons from what had happened and preparing for the 2020-21 academic year. They knew they could do better. Many universities already had a digital strategy; the pandemic acted as a catalyst. Many have already gone further and faster than they had ever imagined was possible.

Here are some examples of what they have done:

  • Created a library of short instructional videos to demonstrate laboratory techniques and skills for students to watch in advance of in-person practicals. These enabled students to watch how these skills and techniques were performed up close and to replay the demonstration as many times as needed. Although this required a significant initial time investment on the part of academic staff, these videos will now be used for years to come and will enhance students' understanding and learning experience.
  • Conducted pulse surveys of students and staff to assess their access to the appropriate equipment for engaging with digital teaching and learning. This was then followed by a rapid response which involved loaning laptops and 4G dongles to those who needed them.
  • Organised training sessions for academic staff on digital skills and the core principles of digital pedagogy. We heard an example of 'star teachers’ - who had been early adopters of digital teaching and learning - presenting in collaboration with learning technologists on a series of topics, such as how to foster a sense of community when teaching online.

The report of our review will be published in February 2021. At this point we are not ready to predict what it will conclude but some messages are becoming clear already.

Digital poverty

While funding has been made available to universities to address this, digital poverty remains a challenge that should be addressed student by student. As part of our review we have developed a clear, practical definition which we have tested in the consultation phase. The response has been welcoming. We define digital poverty by reference to a positive picture: a student is ready and able to learn digitally if they have an appropriate device; good connectivity; reliable back-up when things go wrong; relevant software; a trained teacher; and space in which to work. The absence of one or more of these six elements constitutes digital poverty. Many universities are doing good work on access and participation plans and it is important that we don’t undermine this. Digital poverty should be addressed urgently, practically and positively.

A strategic approach 

Universities and colleges will not be able to make the necessary shift from the present to the future without taking a whole-institution, strategic approach. If, as seems likely, the future will involve both face-to-face and digital teaching and learning as well as approaches which blend the two, then the effects on the institution will be profound. University teachers will need training that is practical, continuous and inspirational, and teaching and learning materials will need to be constantly reviewed and updated. Capital programmes will need to ensure digital infrastructure is sufficiently prioritised. Libraries, which in many cases have already been wonderfully transformed, will need further transformation, as will all the many and varied learning spaces universities have invested in. All this means vice-chancellors, leadership teams and governing councils need to be at the forefront of thinking through what the digital revolution means and then act accordingly.

The student experience 

When the pandemic first hit and the rapid shift to digital teaching and learning took place, inevitably it was experienced as a stop gap, a temporary provision, not as good as what it replaced but hopefully good enough to get through a crisis. For the future, that way of thinking will no longer be good enough. We need to see the opportunity, as many universities are doing, to enhance the student experience of teaching and learning and to take it to a whole new level. This means continuous dialogue with students and an openness to new ideas.

When our report is published it will look ahead and make suggestions as to what universities might do to prepare for digital teaching and learning in the academic year 2021-22. Even more importantly, it will look to the future beyond and set out an agenda for transformation.

I hope that by the middle of this decade, people will be saying that, as far as digital teaching and learning is concerned, we are on the brink of a new golden age. And they might be saying, too, ‘I wish we’d done this years ago’. This time we need to ensure the hopes of a generation are not ‘scuttled by our timidity’.


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Published 30 October 2020

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