Higher Education: How digital came to the rescue

Higher Education: How digital came to the rescue
Published: 7 April 2020

When the prospect of digital learning first became a viable proposition, few would have predicted a global pandemic would prompt the biggest adoption in online learning delivery the sector has ever seen. Before the crisis, the once held belief that online learning would completely disrupt the sector had yet to fully materialise. As we all become accustomed to a new normal, will one of the lasting legacies be a greater acceptance of online learning, and ultimately, a wider uptake?

In a short space of time, the pressure exerted on the Higher Education sector has been immense. As in previous years, we have seen universities show incredible resilience, agility and speed to shift from analogue processes to digital. As the news continued to evolve in early March, it felt like there were new ramifications being discovered daily. On Wednesday 18th March, in addition to the announcement of exam cancellations came the news that all schools would be closing ’until further notice’. Some universities had already closed face-to-face teaching at this point. The rest followed suit as the severity of the pandemic became apparent.

The impact has been vast and the effects pervasive. It has been critical to deliver ‘business as usual’ where possible. Without a doubt, digital learning platforms have been the key enabler to ensure disruption can be kept to an acceptable level. Speaking to a family member, the impact on their second year Philosophy degree has so far been minimal; in some but not all respects. Manraj Bhandal who studies at the University of Birmingham told me;

“Personally, I find that lectures largely stay the same on an online platform; just without the student participation and occasional clarificatory questions. However, our discussion seminars have been replaced by online forums where participation is much lower and reciprocal discussion rarely occurs”.

Educators who were early adopters of online learning such as Imperial College Business School might show the way through tackling issues presented by more interactive classes such as seminars. Leading one of the world’s largest online MBAs, David Lefevre, Director of the Edtech Lab at Imperial College London has decades of experience in online learning but still feels there is innovation to discover.

“We have witnessed innovation at an unprecedented scale and the world of teaching has experienced a paradigm shift. There will be a new normal once we all emerge from the shadow of COVID-19. It is likely that our efforts over the past week will serve as a temporary fix. Within a few weeks, students will become restless with the one-dimensional nature of this experience and some will begin to disengage. In other words, we need to ensure that our online provision quickly evolves beyond the current temporary fix into a more engaging and pedagogically minded format.”

With some certainty, we can say that without online learning and digital platforms, the whole system could have ground to a halt during these troubling times. To keep the whole system working, the input from the academic community, IT functions and teams from across professional services has been considerable. The collaborative efforts have ensured that learning continues, buying us all some further thinking time. Certainly, activity has involved a lot more than uploading lecture slides online.

So, what does the future hold? As David mentioned, a new normal. The impact on pedagogy and course design will surely always consider the potential for a pandemic of this scale and what that could mean for teaching and learning. One aspect that will continue to evolve is the sector’s confidence to intuitively switch between classic chalk-and-talk and online methods should any particular scenario prompt the need. As digital learning becomes more accepted, the skills required of academic leaders and teachers will also need to evolve as we may see even greater demand for online and digital learning experience than ever before. Further solutions are absolutely needed for science and engineering subjects and hopefully these will arrive if universities are able to invest in digital learning more than they ever have before. David goes on to predict;

“Online learning will evolve to embrace new pedagogies. Face-to-face teaching will embrace technology. Blended learning programmes will proliferate.”

A final point for consideration which underpins the level of success for the future of online learning. The necessity for high speed fibre broadband in all areas of the country can no longer be considered a luxury; it is now an essential utility.

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