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Online learning risks lower results for disadvantaged university students

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Studying courses purely online at university may be associated with worse academic results for disadvantaged students, according to a new report from TASO.

The report – which looks at the impact of online learning before and during the pandemic on student outcomes in higher education – found tentative evidence of a widening disadvantage attainment gap.

In analysing historical data from a single university – along with existing evidence – the report finds some evidence of a reduction in attainment for disadvantaged students during the COVID-19 pandemic, which should be tracked as providers continue online provision.

Dr Eliza Kozman, Deputy Director, TASO (Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education) said:

“The move to online learning is here to stay. While this is an opportunity to turbocharge inclusive learning and act as a great leveller, careful attention needs to be paid to any unintended consequences this transition may have on disadvantaged and under-represented students.

“We know that disadvantaged students face greater challenges in accessing and using online content due to factors like digital poverty or lack of suitable study spaces. As higher education providers continue to deliver online teaching and learning, more work is needed to understand the impact of existing approaches and how the design of courses might affect the student experience.”

Recommendations from the report include:

  • Online courses need to be carefully designed and not simply move face-to-face materials into the online environment. Evidence suggests that blended learning (e.g., a combination of face-to-face and online learning) appears to improve attainment when compared to purely online learning.
  • Building student interactions into online courses, such as discussion boards between peers, to allow for increased engagement. Evidence shows this is often positively associated with attainment.
  • Higher education providers should make use of their institutional data and differing pedagogical approaches to design and conduct evaluations to understand what works in the UK context.
  • As students from disadvantaged backgrounds may be more likely to be adversely impacted by the shift to online, future research should focus on their experiences and outcomes.

TASO’s project explored evidence generated prior to, or during, the pandemic. It was formed of two parts: a piece of data analysis and an evidence review.  

The data analysis used existing historical data from a single university to investigate the relationships between measures of disadvantage, changes to teaching and assessment, and student attainment and progression. The anonymised data captured student outcome data for the years 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21. The sample contained over 1,000 students from three courses for three levels of study (first, second and third year).

It was not possible to untangle the effect of a module being taught online, from the effect of it being taught in the context of the pandemic, using the available data.

The rapid evidence review assessed findings from 18 studies. 7 of these focus on the pre-pandemic context, including two meta-reviews. The remaining 11 papers focus on studies conducted since the pandemic.

Download the Summary report: Online teaching and learning in the time of COVID-19

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