Beyond Covid-19: The future of digital teaching and learning

  • 18 November 2020
  • Education
  • Lara Bird

When automobiles first entered the public consciousness around the start of the 20th century, they were often referred to as ‘horseless carriages’. At the time this made sense: the earliest cars looked very similar to carriages, and both were performing the same function of transporting you from A to B. 

The term ‘horseless carriage’ also illustrates a human tendency to imagine the future within the paradigm of the past; within the bounds of what is already familiar and known to us. 

There is an important lesson here for how we think about digital teaching and learning in higher education after the pandemic. The shift to emergency remote teaching has been a crash course for many universities and colleges in digital teaching and learning, and many have achieved things previously thought impossible. There is now an opportunity to capitalise on the momentum of this experience. It’s important that we think boldly and creatively about what comes next – avoiding the ‘horseless carriage’ tendency to imagine change through the lens of the past. 

While we know that the automobile completely replaced the horse and carriage, the same will be not be true of digital replacing face to face teaching. Face to face provision will always have a place. However, it’s difficult to find an area of higher education where digital teaching and learning has no role to play at all. When blended learning is done well, digital and in-person delivery can enhance each other. We must avoid seeing them as separate options in competition with each other. 

Over the past three months, Sir Michael Barber has led a small team gathering information about how the shift to emergency remote teaching has been going, and what this experience was like for students, academic staff, and senior management teams in universities and colleges. We have been looking at what the opportunities are for the sector in the long term, and what the barriers are that might prevent us from realising these opportunities. 

Enthusiasm and innovation

The responses to our call for evidence show that there is a collective enthusiasm when it comes to building on the experience of the pandemic to bring about positive change for students.

We have heard of many innovative examples where universities have built a foundation for change in the longer term. For example, some have: 

  • Conducted diagnostic radiography experiments via Microsoft Teams using a distributed simulation. Students were able to collect and analyse data and achieve the same learning outcomes as they would have done in the x-ray room. There are now plans to extend this to the nursing curriculum for the teaching of first aid skills. 
  • Created short instructional videos so that students can watch up-close demonstrations of laboratory techniques and skills in advance of in-person practicals. Students can replay the video as many times as needed, and often have a better understanding than they would have had watching in person. 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.
  • 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.

Tackling digital poverty

While this progress is encouraging, there is still some way to go to ensure that all students can fully access the benefits of digital teaching and learning. 

Perhaps the most significant barrier here is digital poverty – an issue that we have focused on from the outset. Our aim is to produce a clear, highly practical definition of digital poverty that will be adopted across the higher education sector and help spark scalable solutions. 

Our working definition of digital poverty aims to capture the various components students need to be able to effectively engage in digital teaching and learning. We propose that 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. Access to these six components is necessary for a successful experience of digital teaching and learning. This needs to be addressed as a top priority. 

There are a host of challenges that still need to be addressed, not least in relation to digital poverty. Yet what is clear is that if we are to fully embrace the opportunity of digital teaching and learning, it will require bold and creative thinking that looks to the future, avoiding the tendency to think in terms of ‘horseless carriages’. 

Sir Michael Barber’s Digital Teaching and Learning Review will be published in February 2021. 

If you enjoyed this blog post, and would like to learn more about the topic, register for our free event “Online Teaching in Higher Education Post- Covid”, at 6pm on Wednesday 25th November. 

Lara Bird is a Strategic Policy Adviser at the Office for Students. She is currently working on Sir Michael Barber’s Digital Teaching and Learning Review.