Circle Opinion

Hybrid and online learning – putting perceptions in context

Stewart Eldridge

For many universities, developing online technology used to be part of a three to five-year strategic plan to respond to modern learners’ needs. Students said they wanted more flexibility in how, when and where they study – virtual learning can provide this.

The pandemic forced universities to move forward quickly with these longer-term plans. The result was a rapid increase in digital resources and more collaboration with other institutions. This broke down location barriers and broadened reach.

Since the pandemic, not all universities have returned to face-to-face teaching across the board. This has sparked anger among many students, who feel they aren’t getting value for money.

I’m here to get a degree and I have paid a lot of money for it. I want to feel I’ve been treated fairly. [In lockdown] they didn’t cut the fees, even though we were online. I feel the government could have done more to cut fees, especially for science when you were meant to have contact hours every day and suddenly you had none.”

Katie, third year history student, Queens College, Oxford

For those that were able to access online learning, our study showed there was a strong sense that online tutorials and lectures could not replace the benefits of an in-person university education. Discussions were not as lively in tutor groups, lecturers were not inspiring, there was no sense of community as peers often turned off their cameras, and it was all too easy to step away from the screen. Now, looking back at their notes, students attribute gaps in their learning due to a lack of engagement.

Poor experiences in lockdown don’t mean digital learning is dead. There’s a big difference between the hastily reactive measures implemented in the pandemic and a well-informed, evidence-based, high quality hybrid learning strategy.

Universities are likely to continue delivering virtual materials as part of a hybrid delivery of education that maximises small interactive group learning and teaching in person but removes activities with less interaction, such as lectures. Our research with HEAT, Zero Gravity and students themselves suggests that – crucially – universities must take into account students’ background and experiences when designing hybrid programmes and resources.

We are going to be looking particularly at those courses where we know there are high numbers of students going in where there may be a risk to quality. But we’re also relying on students and others to let us know if they think that quality is slipping and if it is then we will intervene and we will be discussing with universities and colleges what the problems are.

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the Office for Students (OfS)

OfS has set out guidelines and resources for learning institutions to help them set access and participation plans with commitments to address equality of opportunity. The open and free data they recommend is helpful, but we believe it’s insufficient. While IMD data is a recognised Government measure, it does not provide an  up-to-date picture of deprivation. POLAR and IDACI measure attainment, but don’t explain what lies behind it.

Acorn and other commercial datasets provide vital demographic, lifestyle and behaviour insights that inform these baseline measures. It’s only by blending that universities can get the most from the OfS planning guidance to make informed decisions about how best to work with students.

The plan is to allow students flexibility, but also keeping the strong sense of being part of the university.

Luke Chapman, Head of Widening Participation, King’s College, London

Communication and consultation will be key. Students need to be convinced of the effectiveness and value of a hybrid model. They want their experiences in lockdown to be acknowledged and learned from. They want universities to share evidence that digital resources and teaching actively enhance student outcomes and are not just a way to reduce overheads or increase revenue from remote students.

In our recent paper, CACI’s University Data Team draws together student research, geodemographic data and expert opinion. It highlights priorities in the new post-pandemic world for outreach, admissions and widening participation (WP) leaders. Download the report to find out how to build a successful WP strategy.


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Stewart Eldridge