Teaching and learning in UK higher education is at a pivotal moment as it moves back to widespread on-campus learning and teaching while seeking to retain some of the advantages delivered by the digital innovations introduced during the pandemic.
Mary Curnock Cook, Chair of the Jisc/Emerge HE Edtech Board, and Ian Dunn, Provost of Coventry University explain how a new report from Jisc and Emerge Education offers a better path – digitally enhanced learning – and the first steps leaders need to take.
UK higher education has under-invested in digital for years. When it comes to bricks versus clicks, universities have tended over the past decade to invest many times the amount in buildings as in IT, preferring to focus on campus expansion.
But, nearly three years on from the start of the pandemic, universities have also made widespread progress with technology-enabled teaching, witnessing the benefits that it can bring and most now realising that investment in technology is strategically vital. This has been underlined by the publication recently of the Office for Students’ blended learning review. Professor Susan Orr’s report confirms that the higher education sector is now in an ‘emergent context’ and identifies examples of high-quality blended approaches, acknowledging that
the balance of face-to-face, online and blended delivery is not the key determinant of teaching quality.
Back in 2020, emergency measures for online education were generally seen as good enough and decisions were made quickly and under pressure. But now, in this emergent context, as we move away from simply reacting to circumstances, there is an opportunity to build on those developments and shape the future.
If that is to happen, digital must become a core and intentional part of learning and teaching. Now is the time to stop thinking about how individual technological tools can enable teaching and instead consider how a holistic digital outlook can enhance learning wherever it takes place.
What difference might digital make to the learning journey if designed in from the outset rather than added as an afterthought? How can digital tools support a great on-campus experience for full-time students while also making learning more flexible, inclusive and personalised for students who are learning off-campus?
As universities negotiate a shift to digital, they do so against a backdrop of multiple and varied pressures. Nevertheless, there is a huge opportunity to bring digital seamlessly into the learning journey and for digitally enhanced learning to contribute to better inclusion, engagement, accessibility, attainment and outcomes for students.
Doing this will require bringing people, practice, pedagogy, space and technology together in conversations. It also means serious thought being given to how we design learning in the digital age.
For that reason, in collaboration with Jisc and Emerge Education, we have created a report that examines the current context of digitally enhanced learning in universities and maps out where the sector is heading from the perspective of higher education students, staff and leaders. We’ve seen it as an opportunity to take stock, share insights and use the lessons learned from the emergency measures of the pandemic to shape the future together.
From technology enabled teaching to digitally enhanced learning: a new perspective for HE is based on extensive interviews with university leaders and sector specialists, alongside a poll of stakeholders, from students and staff to edtech start-up founders.
From foundations to structures
We discovered that the groundwork has been laid over the past two years for much more profound digital transformation than has been seen so far in most UK universities.
There is a greater openness to innovation – among staff and students alike, there has been more awareness of what is possible in learning and teaching. That this has aligned with enhanced staff and student digital skills, and the growth in awareness, capability and agility in a relatively short time has been extraordinary.
This has been especially evident in changes to assessment. The pandemic offered an opportunity for universities to make assessment more relevant, adaptable and trustworthy, and many experimented with testing knowledge and skills in more authentic ways.
And the benefits have been recognised, particularly in improved inclusivity and accessibility. As online and blended provision has expanded, universities have seen an increased sense of belonging from students who are part-time, distanced, disabled, parents or carers or who just have to balance work and study to pay their living costs and are helped by the increased flexibility. The move to digital teaching and learning has also coincided with a narrowing of attainment / awarding gaps aligned with gender, disability and race.
Employability has also been enhanced through embedding skills. For graduates entering a changing hybrid world of work, it is vital that they feel comfortable using technology to do everything from job interviews and presentations to sales pitches and online collaboration.
Five key areas
Using the report’s interviews, research and case studies, our investigation has identified what has been working. We highlight five key areas where universities can seize opportunities to enhance the student learning journey using digital innovation.
- Design for the digital age: while it is essential to continue building staff and student digital capabilities, these are not a guarantee of a good learning experience unless the learning has been properly designed for a digital context.
- Enable flexible spaces: physical and digital spaces need to be co-designed and co-managed in future, so that integrated learning environments work for in-person and online learners, sometimes both at once. The compartmentalisation of physical and digital into siloed professional service functions within most institutions will need rethinking.
- Recognise the value of community: feeding into this is a growing understanding of what students want and the value they place on community and belonging. They do not necessarily want to sit in a lecture theatre, but they do appreciate social contact, access to services and informal learning opportunities with peers.
- Co-create with students: different student cohorts have different needs and preferences, so universities must work in partnership with students to create flexible opportunities to learn at a time, place and pace that suits them.
- Be data driven: digitally enhanced learning leads to increased online activity and interactions across a variety of systems, increasing the amount of data available to institutions. Collected, processed and aggregated efficiently, this data has the potential to enrich learning analytics and improve decisions on how best to support student learning journeys, from individual to curriculum level.
Lessons for higher education leaders
Universities are at different stages and face a variety of pressures when it comes to digital innovation. Some are still at an early stage while others have been on a digital journey for many years.
To make the most of what has worked really well during the pandemic and to accelerate this digital journey involves key lessons for higher education leaders.
- Change the underlying perspective of higher education from how students are taught to how they learn, with the learning journey as an integral part of the whole student experience.
- Provide greater guidance and transparency about what students will experience and why, alongside more consistency in understanding, expectations and experience across the university.
- Collaborate with students in curriculum co-design and as participants in transforming their educational experiences.
- Invest strategically in technology alongside physical spaces. Digital representation in the boardroom is an essential start.
- Keep building staff and student digital capabilities. Recognise the critical need for digital capabilities among senior leaders. Benchmark skills using national tools and data.
To take full advantage of the transformational opportunity offered by digitally enhanced learning, institutions – and those working to support them – must be prepared to be radical.
Read the report: From technology enabled teaching to digitally enhanced learning: a new perspective for HE is available to read now on the Jisc website.