The OfS’ Lara Bird shares her insights in the digital teaching and learning review

In the first of a series of interviews with interesting people in higher education, Gin Bhandal, our newest recruit into our Education Practice here at GatenbySanderson, had the pleasure of speaking with Lara Bird, Strategic Policy Adviser at the Office for Students, about the recently published digital teaching and learning review led by Sir Michael Barber; “Gravity assist: propelling higher education to a brighter future”* and its potential impact on Higher Education.

Thank you for sharing your insights Lara. Can you tell us about the report’s key findings?

It might be helpful to provide some background detail to begin with. A few months into the pandemic, the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson asked the outgoing chair of the Office for Students, Sir Michael Barber, to conduct a review on digital teaching and learning. There was to be a specific focus on how the higher education sector could seize the opportunity presented from such a rapid shift to online and remote learning.         

We conducted an extensive research process where we spoke with Vice-Chancellors, learning technologists and students, ran polling with students and teaching staff, as well as looking at existing research and literature. The findings as published in the report have provided a wealth of insights. The report is centred around six key components for successful digital teaching and learning that we identified through our research:          

  1. Digital teaching and learning must start with appropriately designed pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment.      
  2. Students must have access to the right digital infrastructure.        
  3. Staff and students need to build the digital skills necessary to engage.       
  4. Technology needs to be harnessed strategically to drive educational experience and outcomes.        
  5. Inclusion must be embedded from the outset.       
  6. All these elements need to be underpinned by a consistent strategy that is shaped by student input.          

This gives institutions a picture of what success should look like and a set of recommendations that will enable them to make this happen.           

From the polling we conducted, we found that around a third of students and staff didn’t have access to a reliable connection nor a reliable study space. This helped to shape our thinking on what needed to be prioritised in the near future.            

The need to build digital skills also came out as a key theme from the polling research. Only 21% of teachers were very confident in their ability to design and deliver online learning whereas close to half (49%) of students were very confident in learning online.

Does the prospect of a fully online degree spell the end of the traditional campus student experience?

I don’t think so. Our polling found that many students still want the physical experience of attending university in person.  We heard from many students that they miss the informal aspects of on campus social interaction such as the chats with friends after lectures, and that these kinds of interactions were difficult to recreate online.        

However, the experience of the last twelve months will mean that technology is integrated into education more frequently, and in more sophisticated ways. It will also have changed people’s perceptions of how realistic it is to do a fully online degree so I expect these will become more prominent.         

We should look at the advantages here. It opens opportunities for students who might not have previously had access to Higher Education or for whom it was not a viable option when they were leaving secondary education. There is a great opportunity to widen access for people who work full time or have caring responsibilities.        

This also links in with the Government’s focus on skills for jobs and the role of lifelong learning. The modular approach to learning along with online delivery will be a major part of this.  

Online learning presents issues with digital access. What should the sector be doing to combat these issues?

I think it’s important for everyone to be on the same page about what exactly digital access is. For many, it’s having a laptop and internet connection. In the report, we were keen to expand on this and create a much fuller definition. Digital access in its broadest sense can be issues relating to hardware, software, systems, reliable internet, digital skills and training and having a suitable study space. These are all aspects of digital access and so it’s important not to neglect these. Our research told us that a third of students are struggling with this as well as reliable internet access.          

What can the sector do about this? It’s a very complicated issue as it intersects with home life. There are ways to look at creative problem solving which we are encouraging throughout the ‘Gravity assist report’. These include working with local libraries, schools, and colleges in a collaborative way. These are short-term solutions which will hopefully give way to long-term solutions. Overall, we hope the sector can work together with students to create a plan where all six aspects of digital access are in place. This is not without its challenges though.          

The other consideration is how teaching is designed. For example, ensuring that students with low bandwidth can access content from the course to the same standard. This might mean not always using the most advanced tech, but rather the tech that enables everyone to access their learning. 

What does the next wave of innovation for digital learning look like?

A lot of progress has been made over the last twelve months but many universities and colleges are, understandably, still at a stage of needing to get the fundamentals in place. It’s critical to make sure that all students are included in this shift to greater use of technology in Higher Education. There is a lot to be excited about.         

One area we see huge opportunity is in the space of learning analytics and software designed to analyse student engagement and performance. There are some incredible examples of innovative work happening on this internationally. Nanyang Technological University in Singapore as an example is using learning analytics very effectively with their School of Medicine. Course leaders have access to real-time learning analytics and can use the data to shape sessions in real-time, looking for learning gaps as they emerge.

The digital learning revolution in higher education has always been on the horizon but finally feels like it has arrived. As a result, what additional skills will our university leaders need?

It feels like we have reached a point of near-universal acceptance that universities and colleges need to see digital as a key component of overall strategy. It’s no longer an add-on or something that just the CIO thinks about. Anyone in a senior leadership position should be aware of digital learning and the opportunities it provides. Arguably the number one skill will be for our leaders to show adaptability. The best university leaders are the ones who reflect on what works and aren’t afraid to change. A keen digital awareness will also be important. An example of this being a well-developed understanding of what the future digital landscape looks like and how to make the right investment decisions.       

I hope we see senior leadership teams that have tech/digital advocates present on them. They can act as the liaison between the SLT, ed-tech and external digital start-ups. Paying attention to these people’s ideas will be important, as will giving them access to the wider university strategy.       

Finally, and arguably most critically, we need to listen to the students. Giving them a chance to provide feedback and then acting on it for their betterment. We need to make students an essential part of the process. 

At GatenbySanderson, we recognise the incredible opportunities and challenges ahead, which is why we have a dedicated and highly experienced digital, data and technology team (DDaT) that can help advise and support you on your journey. If you’re reflecting on the significance of the hyper-accelerated digital environment we all now face, why not get in touch with us to join our growing and vibrant HE Digital community with access to knowledge sharing and networking. Likewise, do reach out to speak confidentially with one of our advisors who can help talk through the latest digital, data and technology trends and the skills required to compliment your executive and non-executive teams. Reach out at (Partner, DDaT) or (Partner, Higher Education).

*The ‘Gravity assist report’ was commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education in July 2020 and led by Sir Michael Barber. It is independent from the Office for Students’ (OfS’s) regulatory functions and does not represent regulatory advice or guidance.

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