Universities must make sound policy arguments for online learning

Over the past few months we have heard from both the Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi and the Minister of Universities Michelle Donelan criticize English universities for replacing face-to-face contact with online learning. This is probably a reaction to complaints from some students, parents and MPs.

Their comment included suggestions that universities have been reluctant to return to pre-pandemic models of providing face-to-face teaching and learning support. They accused universities of being driven by a desire to save money by offering what they suggest is an inferior learning experience. And they threatened to take regulatory action if universities didn’t put everyone back in lecture halls.

I think that political commentary is wrong; indeed, I suggest you could go so far as to say that it ignores some of the facts about online learning. However, I don’t think universities can or should ignore or ignore it.

It is legitimate for politicians to share their concerns with us. As a sector, we need to understand and address these concerns. After all, political perceptions could impact future policies, funding, regulation and the overall reputation of online learning.

Our responses to concerns must be both evidence-based and politically savvy. We should start by challenging the misconception that online learning is offered to save money or because academics don’t care to go back to lecture halls. We must point out that where digital learning has replaced face-to-face, it is part of a blended approach that takes the best of face-to-face and combines it with new digital advancements – often learning from experience of the pandemic but based on good pedagogy, staff expertise and student feedback.

Indeed, any arguments we make for online learning must be rooted in student feedback. While it’s true that many students see the value of face-to-face instruction, it’s not true that they necessarily see digital learning as inferior: the feedback is much richer and more nuanced than that. .

As the uneven attendance of the restarted in-person classes indicates, different groups of students have different opinions about digital offerings. We need to understand and better explain what we know about student demand for online education. It is clear that for some groups of learners, there is a demand for an online training offer, when a face-to-face experience would not be attractive.

Online, or blended, teaching approaches may better suit their preferred way of learning. Or they may find the flexible online offer the best way to fit higher education into their busy family and work lives. Or they simply don’t have the financial means to commute or travel overseas.

On this last point, the British government wishes to increase the export of education. There is high demand from international students for an educational experience in the UK delivered partly or entirely online. The University of London has been successfully delivering this to students around the world for over 160 years – we need to prove it and communicate it.

Any argument about online education should also explain how we ensure its quality. It is a fair challenge from the government to ask universities to ensure that the education offered online is at least as good as that offered in person. We need to prove both the quality of digital delivery and the student outcomes it leads to.

We need to be clear and upfront about the link between online education and meeting the skills needs of businesses and public sector employers. The UK economy needs more people with higher skill levels and job opportunities for graduates are increasing. As long as we get the right learning experiences and supports, online education will open up higher education to those in work, mature students, and groups that have traditionally had low higher education participation rates.

This will allow universities to meet economic needs by expanding at a rate and scale that would otherwise be impossible. In a report just released by the Times Education Commission, among a series of recommendations is the suggestion of 50 new campuses across the country in educational “cold spots.” Yet the physical infrastructure of campuses (which, by the way, will also be needed to accommodate population growth) will take many years and be very expensive. Appropriate investment in high quality online education would provide an alternative to meet the skill needs and demand of students. Digital delivery will also help build digital skills that employers value but say they struggle to recruit.

If we articulate all of this clearly and coherently, what politician could disagree?

Alistair Jarvis is Professional Vice-Chancellor (Partnerships and Governance) at the University of London and former Chief Executive of Universities UK.