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Bringing universities into the 21 Century: supporting onsite teaching with virtual learning

  • 22 November 2021
  • By David Latchman

This blog was contributed by Professor David Latchman, Vice-Chancellor at Birkbeck, University of London.

After 18-months of enforced online learning, it is not surprising that most students were keen to return to onsite teaching and the unique opportunities that in-person university life presents. There are good reasons why the in-person model is so enduring. We are social beings, and the ease with which we meet, collaborate, and learn from each other in the classroom has incredible value.  

We would however be missing a key opportunity if we let the bad press about emergency online provision provided during COVID lockdowns shape our thinking about digital learning more generally. Although some universities reported low satisfaction with online provision, where there was investment in its development, there is evidence that student satisfaction ratings, were high.

Like most other universities, Birkbeck has returned to in-person teaching because for the majority of students, it is the key element of their higher education experience — however, we have not abandoned digital learning altogether.

Our students have said that they strongly prefer a combination of online and onsite teaching — the use of prepared digital material which they can work through at their own convenience, and live sessions that add value through access to academic experts and group interaction. This model, which we introduced at the beginning of the pandemic, has had a positive impact on their results.

During lockdown, attendance at teaching events improved by more than ten per cent. The awarding gap between Black and White students decreased and academic performance overall improved, with key attainment, progression, and student satisfaction metrics higher than before the pandemic.

Some of the benefits of learning online are well documented: the elements of it that are self-directed, provide students with more flexibility over when and where they chose to study. This can be particularly important for mature learners who are often reskilling or upskilling and who usually have work or caring commitments, such as parenting, outside of their studies. But we found that when virtual learning is designed to be interactive, and to facilitate peer-to-peer engagement, as well as engagement with academics, its benefits extend to all groups of students.

Our shift to online learning was also positively received by many disabled students. It worked particularly well for students with mobility difficulties and those with medical conditions who needed to shield. Neurodivergent students, including those with dyslexia or ADHD, in general were happy that they did not need to travel into London but some also said that they found the additional demands of having to do a high level of independent preparation for online teaching challenging. Deaf and hard-of-hearing students also tended to report positive experiences of virtual learning.

So, what do universities need to focus on for their virtual learning environments to be successful, and for satisfaction ratings to match or surpass those of the classroom experience?

Early in the pandemic, we provided staff-development to support the transformation of programmes and lectures to online delivery and invested in digital education expertise and technology. We developed a learning platform that met the latest accessibility standards, including captioning both live and recorded events. Simply pre-recording lectures that would usually be delivered in classrooms does not work for students online, so we redesigned our courses, programmes, learning sessions and materials for the online environment. We made them as interactive as we could, so that students had opportunities to engage and learn from each other, as well as from academics.

Now that we have returned to physical classrooms, we have extended them into the virtual by contextualising each week of study smartly, clearly and consistently and by providing curated journeys through the learning materials.Academics have said that they believe the interactive element of our virtual learning environment has led to greater understanding of the subject matter and a richer exploration of subjects. Students are also more engaged and have more opportunities to test their understanding through formative assessment. We also bought electronic texts and provided many of the core textbooks that students would usually need to buy free of charge.

Importantly, students were provided with a guarantee that some elements of their teaching and learning would continue to be live, interactive and ‘face-to-face’, albeit online. This meant that, although delivery was via the internet, students were not expected to learn on their own through hours of pre-recorded video. Webcams allowed for online sessions to continue to be ‘in-person’ and live, and modern technology allowed students to be active participants and to continue to collaborate, to an extent, as if they were onsite.

Of course, not everyone adapted easily to the virtual world. Digital poverty meant that some students were initially excluded because they couldn’t afford the technology, had poor internet connections or had nowhere quiet to study at home. When it came to the groups that we reach through our widening participation programmes, some were simply not accustomed to using the technology. But we responded with support to address these challenges. Funds were allocated to students who needed financial support for appropriate IT; internet enabled workspaces were provided when lockdown measures allowed; and help in using technology was offered to those who needed it.

Despite initial anxiety about coming face-to-face with colleagues and students again at the start of this term, particularly given that COVID-19 infections remained high, we are now successfully combining our pre-pandemic ways of working with the virtual learning environment so that students benefit from the best of both worlds. For Birkbeck, it has now become a part of our inclusive practice; by providing a diverse range of learning experiences for students, we can best meet the needs of our diverse learning community.

If universities do not embrace digital learning in conjunction with campus learning, we will be ignoring the needs of many students, as well as the benefits it can have for all.

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