Universities’ response to pandemic could see radical improvements in digital teaching, says OfS

Universities and colleges in England should take the opportunity to radically improve digital teaching and learning as they continue to negotiate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the Office for Students (OfS) has said in its annual review.

While the review notes how universities have worked hard to adapt their teaching and learning practices as a result of lockdown restrictions, the pandemic has ‘exacerbated’ existing inequalities – particularly with regard to digital poverty. Sir Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students, says in his foreword:

'The area most obviously and radically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic has been the delivery of teaching and learning. In spring this year, universities and colleges shifted to online teaching with impressive speed. I have been told that in some cases more progress was made in a month than in the previous five years. My review of digital teaching and learning, due to report in early 2021, will set out how we can learn the lessons from this shift and ensure digital provision becomes a significant contributor – in myriad ways – to high-quality teaching and learning.

'This will require us collectively to ensure no student suffers from digital poverty; that every provider takes a whole-institution, strategic approach to digital transformation; and that opportunities to take teaching and learning to a new level are seized through ongoing dialogue with students. The pandemic forced a radical shift to online delivery; the disruptions and challenges involved will only be truly worthwhile if they lead to opportunities seized.'

The report on digital teaching and learning, led by Sir Michael Barber, will look at how high-quality digital provision can be continued and delivered at scale; consider the impact of digital poverty; and explore how digital technology has been used to deliver remote education since the pandemic started. It will make recommendations for the year 2020-21 and look to the longer term future.

In her commentary for the annual review, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, says that universities should to work towards ‘maximising the potential of digital teaching,’ noting the challenges that students have faced this year: 

'Maintaining teaching quality and academic standards is at the heart of our regulatory role, and this has been even more important during the pandemic. As the transition to digital learning took place, many students faced unprecedented challenges in accessing lectures, tutorials and wider support. We have been particularly concerned about the impact of the pandemic on certain groups of students: international students, postgraduates and students who are vulnerable by reason of disability or for other reasons.'

She continues:

'Since the start of the pandemic, most universities and colleges have adopted some form of remote teaching and learning. This shift to online provision has been driven by necessity, but also creates huge opportunities.'

Student polling previously published by the Office for Students shows that during the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown:

  • 52 per cent of students said their learning was impacted by slow or unreliable internet connection, with 8 per cent ‘severely’ affected
  • 71 per cent reported lack of access to a quiet study space, with 22 per cent ‘severely’ impacted
  • 56 per cent said they lacked access to appropriate online course materials, with 9 per cent ‘severely’ impacted.

The review offers a comprehensive view of the higher education sector in England, including universities’ response to the coronavirus pandemic. It also maps out priority areas for the OfS in the year ahead. As well as working with universities to tackle digital poverty, the regulator will also focus on raising on the bar on quality and standards. Ms Dandridge writes:

'Poor-quality courses should be improved or no longer offered. The consultation published in November proposes a series of measures to define, monitor and take action regarding the quality and standards of courses that do not reach minimum requirements.'

She continues:

'Our proposals would ensure that providers that recruit students from underrepresented groups and with protected characteristics are held to the same minimum level of performance as other providers, and would see consideration given to outcomes at subject level within providers, as well as at the level of the whole provider. We expect to consult further on our approach to baseline quality in due course.'

The final priority for the year ahead will focus on improving opportunities for mature students. Ms Dandridge writes:

'During 2021, we expect to see more demand from adults to study in higher education for retraining as we move out of the pandemic. This is a trend we need to encourage, not least as a way of ensuring that a highly skilled graduate workforce can support our national, regional and local economies, as they emerge from the impact of the pandemic and adapt to life outside the European Union. New advanced learning loans will make learning more affordable for adults without A-levels. At the same time, there are more opportunities for mature students in areas like nursing.

'2021 should be a year when we look more seriously at how courses could be made more attractive and responsive to mature students, and a year when more adults are encouraged to take up such opportunities.'

See the OfS annual review

For more information contact Richard Foord on 0117 905 7676 or email [email protected]

Published 03 December 2020

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