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Universities set to host more lessons online after Covid-19 pandemic – report

Joe Giddens

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

Hosting seminars and lectures exclusively on university campuses could become a thing of the past, a report suggests.

The majority of universities across the UK have been offering a blended approach of face-to-face and online classes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Blended learning is now the preferred model of study for many students and lecturers, rather than solely in-person lessons, according to research by a coalition of higher education organisations.

Universities should embrace blended learning in their curriculums in the long-term, the sector-led report suggests.

The paper, from education technology not-for-profit organisation Jisc, Universities UK (UUK), Advance HE and Emerge Education, also calls on universities to expand the digital skills and confidence of students and staff.

It comes as the Department for Education (DfE) has issued guidance saying that face-to-face teaching should continue at universities in England during the second lockdown, where it can be done safely.

Paul Feldman, chief executive of Jisc, said: “The world has changed and we’re seeing sector-wide agreement that we need to not just make the best of the situation but build on it.

“Students, lecturers and leaders are all saying that they wouldn’t want to return to purely in-person teaching, they see what’s happening now as the path to something bigger and better.”

The report engaged more than 1,000 university leaders, staff and students through webinars, roundtables, focus groups, surveys and interviews.

Chris Hale, director of policy at UUK, said: “Many university leaders are facing similar challenges, so it has been hugely beneficial to come together to think about them collectively.

“Those conversations are invaluable in determining how we, as a sector, chart our way forward.”

The University and College Union (UCU) has been calling on vice-chancellors to move learning online to keep students and staff safe.

Jo Grady, general secretary of UCU, said: “Blended and distance learning are long-standing features of higher education provision in the UK, but now is not the time to contemplate any wider long-term shift in one direction or the other.

“Employers should be joining their staff in focusing their attention on the task at hand: supporting the urgent needs of students and picking up the pieces of a failed strategy for reopening campuses.”

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “The pandemic has been hugely disruptive and challenging for students, but it has also forced universities to innovate in a way they have been reluctant to for years.

“Disabled students, part-time students and parents in particular have long called for a digital approach to more easily manage competing priorities in their personal and professional lives, we must now seize this opportunity to eradicate those barriers.”

But she added: “While digital poverty continues to shut off thousands however, we should be cautious of overstating the democratising possibilities of online learning, we need significant investment so that all students can get online in the first place.”