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Students should expect high quality teaching, however courses delivered – OfS responds to blended learning review

Universities and colleges should ensure they are meeting requirements to deliver a high quality academic experience when using ‘blended’ teaching approaches, the Office for Students (OfS) has said today.  

The call follows a blended learning review commissioned by the OfS and led by Professor Susan Orr, Pro Vice Chancellor Education at De Montfort University. The OfS has called on universities and colleges to review their approaches to blended learning and teaching to ensure that courses comply with the OfS’s conditions of registration. 

OfS-appointed reviewers interviewed students and staff at higher education providers as part of their work. The review panel found examples of good practice as well as identifying poor practice. The review panel has made 23 recommendations.  

In response, the OfS has identified approaches to blended learning that could cause regulatory concerns in relation to the OfS’s quality and consumer protection requirements. 

Key findings of the review panel include: 

  • There are examples of high quality blended approaches and innovation that support students’ learning.
  • There are pockets of poor online teaching practice and poor online learning resources.
  • The balance between face-to-face and online delivery is not the key determinant of teaching quality.
  • Students reported that they received less timely and lower quality feedback in online learning settings than in face-to-face settings.
  • Students reported feeling isolated studying online during national lockdowns and they identified a negative impact on their sense of belonging to an academic community because of an absence of peer networks and support during periods of isolation.

The review panel’s report sets out recommendations, which call for universities and colleges to ensure:

  • Students must have clear information about the approach they can expect to blended learning when they are thinking about applying for a course and after they have registered.
  • Unedited lectures from previous years should be carefully reviewed before they are used again, to ensure all course information is accurate and course content is up to date.
  • Growth in student numbers does not drive their approach to blended learning and, instead, the blended approach should be informed by sound pedagogic principles.
  • Approaches to learning and teaching should allow academics to identify where students are struggling with online content or falling behind, so that their learning needs can be addressed.
  • They engage with students to identify and address barriers to attendance and engagement.
  • They work with students and students’ unions to create tools (including surveys, focus groups, reference groups) for students to evaluate their experience of blended study.

In response, the OfS has set out issues universities and colleges should consider to help ensure they remain compliant with its regulatory requirements, including whether:

  • Online lectures are up-to-date and of good quality.
  • Online feedback is timely and of the same high quality as students would expect when learning in-person.
  • Decisions about the balance between online and in-person learning are underpinned by sound pedagogic reasoning, not a desire to accommodate increased student numbers or to compensate for limitations in the physical space needed for in-person teaching.
  • Students receive clear detailed information about how their course will be delivered.
  • Students and staff are supported to develop the skills they need to engage effectively in online learning. 

Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS, said: 

‘I thank Professor Orr, her review panel, and the OfS student panel, for their work. This is a thorough, timely, and important report which sets out the potential benefits and opportunities, as well as some of the challenges, with blended learning. The OfS has always been clear that our regulatory interest is focused on the quality of higher education courses, however those courses are delivered. 

‘We recognise the speed at which universities and colleges transformed the delivery of their courses at the start of the pandemic. Significant change and innovation were achieved by university staff in the most difficult circumstances. It is now important that universities and colleges reflect on what has worked well for students and what has not. Today’s report should inform that reflection and contains lessons for universities and colleges that wish to continue to adopt blended approaches. 

‘We have also provided guidance to assist providers in understanding where the OfS may have concerns about compliance with our conditions of registration. They have the opportunity now to make changes to their approach to ensure courses meet our requirements for quality and we expect them to do so.’ 

Professor Susan Orr said:  

‘This review was conducted in the period after the emergency move to online teaching. We explored how universities and colleges have developed their blended teaching and learning in the months following lockdown. 

‘It was a privilege to have the opportunity to meet with students and staff in each of the providers and to hear them discuss their experience of lockdown and post-lockdown teaching and learning. Their carefully considered insights have laid the foundations for this report. 

‘We found many examples where universities and colleges were applying the learning from the ‘emergency pivot’ to support well-considered blend approaches. Students often told us that they appreciated the flexibility that blended learning can offer.  

‘We noted with concern the negative impact on students of long periods of studying online during lockdown. Students reported that they felt isolated and less able to get feedback from tutors and peers while studying online. This reminded us how important it is to help students rebuild peer networks and communities.  

‘Some students reported online lecture overload and found it difficult to fit this around their on-campus learning activities. It is important that blended courses are well designed so that the online and face-to-face elements work together to support students’ learning. 

‘I would like to thank my review panel and the OfS student panel for their commitment to this project.’ 

Sector Response

Skills Minister Andrea Jenkyns said:

“Students shouldbe receiving pre-pandemic levels of face-to-face teaching, as this offers them the greatest value for money and the most enriching experience possible.

“Whilst virtual learning is a fantastic innovation, it must never detract from a student’s high quality learning experience and, as revealed in this report, should never lead to a lack of in-person feedback or pockets of poor standard of online teaching.

“Students deserve much better and that is why we asked the Office for Students to put ‘boots on the ground’ and investigate universities where there are concerns over face-to-face teaching.”

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