The coronavirus pandemic has forced UK universities to rapidly shift online, and no date has been confirmed for campuses to reopen. With the second coronavirus peak projected to take place in autumn, many institutions are already planning to move at least their first semester online. Whatever happens, universities are not going to look at how their students expect for some time.
So if universities are online, will students still come? New research suggests that 20% of students are reconsidering plans to start university in the autumn – a possible 120,000 student shortfall. Yet so far, the University and College Admissions Service reports that very few have reneged on their offers. And for those already at university, a National Union of Students survey found that almost half of students were happy with their online learning.
Katie Barrett, a student at the University of West England, has enjoyed her online experience so far. “I’m still getting all my lectures and seminars, so the learning itself hasn’t been disrupted much,” she says. “My lecturers are doing extra Q&As via Zoom, for example, so some of the material actually feels more accessible.”
These positive experiences may permanently transform universities, believe Vijay Govindarajan, a business innovation professor at Dartmouth College in the US. “Universities can create high-quality multimedia experiences online. Lectures can be recorded in HD and reused, so more of professors’ time can be spent on interacting with students. This will improve the overall quality of learning,” he says. “Online learning might have been a long time coming in higher education, but it’s here to stay.”
Online learning shouldn’t be seen as a quick-fix solution to the pandemic. Allison Littlejohn, director of the UCL Institute of Education’s knowledge lab, cautions that quality online courses take time and effort to create. “It’s crucial the online learning experience is well-designed and we don’t simply shift existing content from one format to another,” she says.
Equally, for many students, the value of the university goes deeper than coursework and qualifications. Research by Universities UK found that almost 60% of students and recent graduates felt the social element of the campus experience helped them broaden their life experience, become more independent and confident, and develop skills like teamwork and time management.
Charles Craig, who studies music business at Leeds College of Music, worries about the lack of networking and entrepreneurship opportunities if the rest of his degree is delivered online. “Engaging with the content and tutors is more difficult online. I hate the distortion you get on video calls and the awkward sound delays make it hard to speak at the right time,” he adds.
“Learning remotely isn’t the same as the visceral experience of expressing and debating ideas in a physical space,” agrees Jesper Ryynänen, a student at the London School of Economics (LSE). “I chose LSE for its public events and renowned speakers, yet there’ll be none of that this semester.”
Some students may feel that paying the same fees for digital versions of their courses would be of poor value. The tuition for Ryynänen’s one-year MSc at the LSE is £29,000 – far more expensive than fully online options from renowned names like Harvard University and Wharton Business School.
Craig doesn’t think he would have applied had he known. “Shorter courses and masterclasses run by industry experts might have been a better option than an online degree,” he says.
Craig’s view reiterates an international survey in 2019 commissioned by Pearson, which suggested that today’s learners are increasingly interested in vocational and shorter programs, especially online. If they move online, universities will have to compete with new formats, including coding boot camps like Le Wagon, Codeworks and Northcoders. These offer quicker, cheaper courses in subjects such as web development and data science with in-built industry connections.
But moving university courses online due to the coronavirus pandemic is expected to cost the higher education sector £1bn. UK universities will be keen to ensure their investment in digital transformation is for the long term, especially after years of lagging behind universities in other countries.
One barrier could be a cultural change. When Times Higher Education surveyed 200 university leaders in 2018, all of them agreed that online learning could never replace the physical university experience.
Kendrick Oliver, a professor at the University of Southampton, agrees. “Nothing can replace the classroom experience. Being physically together in space means rich communication and more energy and experimentation from everyone involved. But he acknowledges: “Habit and routine are powerful. Months of online working will make digital more of a default.”
There are also reputational risks to moving online, says Jovana Karanovic, a researcher in digital platforms at VU Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “Online learning may produce a precarious gig economy to connect students and educators,” she explains. “This competitive, fragmented learning landscape could raise accountability issues, prompt a loss of academic expertise, and lower teaching standards.” She adds that universities will also need to invest in proper staff training.
But there are benefits to online learning: it can widen access to education to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to go. This is already happening in the US, where online education is more established, especially among lower-income students. Last month, Southern New Hampshire University, the country’s fastest-growing university, announced that it has used online learning to enable it to slash its tuition fees by 61%.
This may echo the recent shift in the UK away from the “boarding school” model of higher education and towards more students commuting to campus. Research by the Sutton Trust highlights that the number of students choosing to live at home while the study has increased, largely to save money.
The future of UK universities may lie in mixing online curriculums and offline experiences, known as blended learning. Many are already planning to introduce this to enable social distancing on campus. “[This] can enhance students’ experience of studying,” says Michael Horn, co-founder of the Christensen Institute, a global education thinktank. “I expect to see a lot more universities offering blended courses post-pandemic.”
Prior to the pandemic, some innovative UK universities already offered blended learning. Among these is the University of East Anglia (UEA), which introduced online modules to reach the most disadvantaged students, and plans to scale them up post-pandemic. Its crime fiction MA, for example, is delivered primarily through virtual learning but includes intensive “residencies” on campus to meet industry professionals and participate in a national crime fiction festival.
Henry Sutton, the designer of the crime fiction program, says the university recognized the potential of new course approaches early on. “The MA launched in 2015 using the technology we already had,” he explains. “Students tell us they like the flexibility, they find the residential aspects valuable, and their communication with peers is more considered.”
Meanwhile, other universities are following suit. A consortium of 10 universities led by Coventry was recently awarded £3.7m to develop partly online postgraduate conversion courses in artificial intelligence and data science.
According to Sarah Barrow, UEA’s pro-vice-chancellor for arts and humanities, the pandemic represents “a revolutionary moment”. She expects the shift online to kickstart a lifelong learning agenda. This has already been discussed as a way to skill up employees whose jobs will become automated in the future, but which universities have been slow to implement.
The challenge now is the scale and pace of change. “We’ve adapted and brought forward our plans, but this is disruption on an unprecedented scale,” says Barrow. “It normally takes two years to create a new course or module. Now we’re designing and launching online options in a matter of weeks.”