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The call comes as new polling suggests only 21 per cent of lecturers were ‘very confident’ they could design and deliver digital teaching during the pandemic – 59 per cent said they were fairly confident, and 18 per cent said they were not confident.

By comparison, 49 per cent of students said they were ‘very confident’ that they had the skills to benefit from online learning with 42 per cent somewhat confident.

The findings come in a major review of digital teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic led by Sir Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students (OfS). Gravity Assist: propelling higher education towards a brighter future argues that digital teaching and learning is just not an emergency stop-gap but has the potential to drive significant long-term improvements across higher education.

The YouGov poll of 536 teaching staff found that over a third (36 per cent) reported having no access to technical support whilst teaching digitally. From the poll of 1285 students, 24 per cent of students said they lacked technical support while learning. Furthermore, 23 per cent of lecturers said they lacked the right technology to deliver teaching and learning – 15 per cent of students said they lacked the right technology while learning.

The review captures core lessons from the mass transition to digital teaching during the pandemic. It suggests six steps that universities and colleges can follow before the start of the next academic year to immediately improve the digital teaching and learning on offer for students. These are:

  • assess students’ digital access on a one-to-one basis and remove any barriers before learning is lost
  • communicate to new and returning students what digital skills they will need to engage with the course
  • involve the student voice in teaching and learning design
  • equip staff with the right skills and resources to teach effectively
  • make the digital environment safe for all students
  • plan how you will seize the opportunity presented by digital teaching and learning in the longer-term.

To deliver on the long-term promise of digital teaching and learning, the report argues that:

  • it is vital that online learning doesn’t simply replicate traditional lectures or tutorials – it must be properly adapted to digital delivery
  • universities should start planning now to make the most of these opportunities and ensure that learning from this period is not lost
  • overcoming barriers to digital inclusion is essential – students will not benefit from online learning if they do not have the equipment and skills to access it
  • digital teaching and learning could, itself, make great strides in improving access – for example in the additional flexibility it gives to mature learners or those with disabilities
  • staff should also be supported to develop digital skills with incentives for continuous improvement
  • universities have the opportunity to promote high-quality higher education abroad and engage a new generation of overseas students.

Sir Michael Barber, chair of the OfS and author of the report, said:

'The pace of change throughout the pandemic has been extraordinary. During an unprecedented crisis, and under immense pressure, universities and colleges across the country moved to mass online learning at speed. This is thanks in large part to the ingenuity, dedication and hard work of teaching staff. Students have also shown incredible resilience, creativity and enthusiasm for their studies.

'The story that we capture in this report is fundamentally optimistic – so many people that I spoke to have been extremely hopeful about the long-term impact of digital teaching often combined with traditional approaches. During the pandemic, what many people thought would take years to implement was often achieved in a matter of weeks. It is vital that we learn from this period of change and ensure that we capitalise on the opportunities we have before us. In researching and writing this report, it was clear that online learning, often combined with traditional teaching, is not just an emergency stop-gap. It has the potential to spark vast improvements in education worldwide – both in the short and long-term – and there is real appetite for it to do so.

'In-person teaching will always have a pivotal role in higher education, but there are several things that universities and colleges can do now to capitalise on the benefits of online learning. All lecturers and teaching staff need the right skills and training to deliver high-quality education – it’s understandable that lecturers had lower confidence in delivering online learning at the start of the pandemic, and this should improve as digital techniques become more embedded in the fabric of higher education. Removing barriers to digital inclusion, engaging with students about the digital skills they need, and acting on their feedback will be essential.

'Technological advances are reshaping the world in countless ways– the impact of the pandemic likely speed up the pace of change. Universities have the opportunity to embrace and help shape this continuing change: preparing graduates to thrive in a digital age both at home and overseas. Grasping this opportunity will take strategic thinking, readiness to learn, and a willingness to take risks. I hope this report will help universities and colleges on that journey.'

Responding to the recommendations of the review, Dr Paul Feldman, chief executive of Jisc, an education and technology not-for-profit that is part-funded by the OfS, said:

'Jisc is committed to seeing the recommendations of this review of digital education realised. There is no doubt that redesigning pedagogy, curriculum and assessment is crucial as the UK moves towards a more inclusive and positive post-pandemic student experience. We are here to help universities as they grasp the opportunities to learn from the past year. This is a pivotal time. Let’s seize both the moment and the momentum to innovate, bringing immersive technologies into our institutions for the benefit of staff and students. Jisc is proud to support universities as they continue to embrace digital and embed inclusive, accessible, and lifelong learning opportunities that deliver for all.'

Gravity Assist: propelling higher education towards a brighter future reflects both on the experience of students during the pandemic, and offers practical recommendations to help universities improve their digital teaching and learning in the short and long term. Polling for the report found that:

  • 28 per cent of students want to go back to exclusively in-person assessments once the pandemic is over – 32 per cent would prefer to be assessed online and 28 per cent would prefer a combination of digital and in-person methods
  • 48 per cent of students said they were not asked for feedback on their digital teaching
  • 56 per cent of students said the digital teaching they received was better than or in line with what their university or college said they would receive
  • 70 per cent of staff agreed that digital teaching and learning provides opportunities to teach in new and exciting ways.

The review includes several case studies explores how universities and colleges have used innovative teaching and learning during the pandemic, and how their students responded. For example:

Teesside University: Staff in the School of Health and Life Sciences developed simulations as an alternative to accessing specialist facilities. Radiography students carried out x-ray experiments remotely using the simulation tool. Before the experiment, students read a research paper and devise a spreadsheet to capture data for the experiment. The session was delivered via Microsoft Teams, with the simulation displayed on the facilitator’s screen and students directing the experiment and collecting the data.

University of Cambridge: According to a survey conducted of 550 disabled students, significantly more students said the switch to online assessment was positive than negative, compared with in-person exams sat in 2019. Students said the exams improved accessibility, with one commenting: “I feel like the extended exam approach finally levelled the playing field for students with learning or mental disabilities.”

University of Worcester: Paramedic science clinical skills lecturers developed an online case study format to teach undergraduate paramedics remotely. Using a blend of audio cues and open-access imagery, the team created a realistic clinical experience for students. Cases used pre-recorded heart and lung sounds, real-time observations via simulated monitors, and microphone and chat functions to undertake assessment and clinical questioning of a simulated patient, played by facilitating staff.

The Open University: OpenSTEM Labs enable students to remotely engage experiments and practical learning. It connects students to data and real equipment for practical experiments and analysis over the internet, accessible from anywhere and at any time. For remote-controlled activities users access real equipment through the internet. They can book an online session, undertake an experiment or activity, send real-time control commands, monitor real-time performance and download data for subsequent analysis.

University of Sheffield: The University of Sheffield has created a series of online courses for students to build their digital skills. The series includes resources tailored for students at different levels of study, and students can use these independently or they can be used by departments as part of induction programmes. Students can build towards an academic skills certificate, which recognises and acknowledges the development of their skills throughout their course of study.

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