October 20, 2021

Do universities really need to move online?

Much has been made recently of the disruption of traditional higher education by the global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The wholesale move to online learning caught most academic institutions off-guard, leading to a general sense of chaos as education providers tried to balance their resources between teaching and what can only be described as crisis management. This air of volatility was compounded by wild variations in government policies that made it impossible – and continue to make it very challenging –for universities to plan decisively for the future.


That the industry has suffered such a blow is not itself surprising. Even before the pandemic it was clear that the traditional higher education business model was vulnerable to disruption. Dr Clayton Christensen, professor at Harvard Business School and legendary authority on disruptive innovation, saw this coming at least 10 years ago when he foretold the impact of digital technologies on higher education. From that point of view, all Covid-19 did was accelerate the inevitable. This is why one of the more uncomfortable questions asked over the last 18 months has been, why weren’t institutions better prepared? Yes, Covid-19 was a sudden and largely unpredictable event, but what it triggered – a radical shift in when, where, what and how people learn – was arguably foreseeable.


The answer to that question varies from university to university and is dependent on multiple factors. The cynical view that a lack of preparedness was universally indicative of outdated thinking and short-sighted strategies is not fair nor accurate. It is difficult for any organisation to transition from an established bricks-and-mortar model to a digitally-driven one – we have seen this to be true in almost every industry affected by digital revolutions, not only education.


However, beyond the practical challenges of digital transformation lies the question of whether it is even the right thing to do. Until 2020, many higher education institutions remained unconvinced that this shift was a necessity, or at least urgent enough to justify heavy investment. Those ardent supporters of a move to increased online learning appear to have been vindicated by the events surrounding the pandemic. Their argument is twofold: 1) the world is very obviously moving towards digital; and 2) the way in which almost all education institutions managed to deliver some form of online learning within a relatively short period of time shows that it can be done, and that any failure to do so is purely due to a lack of will or foresight.


But the issue is more nuanced than that, and as societies open up and more students have the option to return to in-person classes, universities are faced with a decision arguably more difficult than the one they faced before Covid: now that we have ‘gone digital’, do we stay online, or do we return to a world of teaching face-to-face? For most universities, the answer to this involves some form of blended solution, and the question is not so much ‘why?’ but ‘how?’

It’s all about degrees

In truth, most universities did not ‘go digital’ in 2020 and 2021. What became the norm was a form of remote learning based on Zoom calls, or their equivalent. Lectures did not vary in content or delivery, other than moving from a physical classroom to a virtual one. This form of teaching is, by online learning standards, rudimentary. It’s what online learning experts have called ‘emergency remote teaching’ and it represents the bare minimum of digital delivery: an information broadcast. Given the requirements of teaching in lockdown, this is understandable. Teachers and lecturers unfamiliar with digital technologies were suddenly trying to learn new software instead of concentrating on the subjects they were employed as experts in. University IT systems were unprepared for mass transitions to online learning. Students found themselves grappling with new learning challenges while being deprived of the group engagement that is such an intrinsic part of university life.


Almost 60% of students and recent graduates feel that the social side of campus life is beneficial in multiple ways, and the loss of this has been a driving force behind student calls for return to in-person classes. However, seeing friends, fellow students and teachers face-to-face is not the only reason we have seen negative responses to online learning, like the petition by students at Leeds University declaring that “Online teaching is in no way a substitute for in-person learning”. The quality of virtual learning delivered by tertiary institutions is improving but still falls short of the standard a digitally literate student is accustomed to online. In other words, the UX needs to be upgraded. Even though it seems most universities will deliver some form of blended learning as their campuses build back up to “normal” activity, it is crucial that they focus on improving their online offering. No matter the final balance of virtual and face-to-face delivery, it is commercially imperative that universities get digital right, and this starts with recognising that not all online learning is equal.


There is a vast difference between an expertly designed and executed online learning process and a Zoom lesson from a remote lecture hall. As the pandemic made plainly obvious, most traditional universities lag far behind digital learning specialists who have spent years investing heavily in creating high-quality user experiences that deliver strong learning outcomes. It is within this tech gap that most of the value in today’s virtual learning lies: mobility, flexibility, sophisticated community engagement, deep personalisation, and AI-assisted learning.


Catching up is a tall order and an expensive one. A year ago, estimates put the cost of getting UK universities online at approximately £1 billion, and for many institutions this cost really only represents an initial investment. Developing technological capabilities in educational delivery, administration, recruitment, and content management is resource and capital intensive, which is why universities are finding ways to partner with established specialists. Online program management (OPM) providers are a prime example, delivering suites of services that enable higher education institutions to move their programmes online quickly, and with high quality. It’s an approach that gives universities access to accelerated digital transformation, allowing them to stay relevant, responsive, and competitive without needing to implement radical structural changes.


Whether it is a little or a lot, there is no doubt that online learning in university courses is here to stay. After an enforced experiment in 100% virtual learning, students realised what they missed most about being on campus, but they also tasted the benefits of digital delivery. Now, as they return to class, they want the best of both worlds, and universities need to give it to them.


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