English regulator launches review of blended learning standards

Universities will be told what approaches to online education fail to meet Office for Students' requirements as government pushes for return to face-to-face education

March 17, 2022
Online lecture illustrating US universities plans for autumn classes
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English universities will be told which approaches to blended learning fall short of the sector regulator’s requirements as part of a review being launched into in-person versus online course delivery.

The Office for Students will examine institutions’ approaches to learning post-pandemic after what it said were concerns about the poor quality of the online experience for some students.

A report – due in summer 2022 – will outline good and bad practice, with universities being asked to justify why they are proposing to keep certain elements of courses online.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, stressed that there were “clear benefits” to face-to-face teaching and it should be provided where it has been promised to students.

“This return to relative normality is important, and comes after an enormously challenging two years for students and staff,” she said.

“It remains very important that universities and colleges are clear with their students and their applicants about how courses will be delivered.

“If universities decide that certain elements are to remain online, this should be made explicit. Whether online or face to face, the quality must be good, and feedback from students taken into account.”

The government has been pushing for a return to more in-person teaching after all remaining Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, with ministers saying that online learning should not be used as a cost-cutting exercise.  

However, many universities continue to deliver some elements of their courses online – particularly lectures for large groups of students – and say that many appreciate the flexibility this offers.

Times Higher Education surveys have previously found three out of UK five universities were planning to keep lectures online into last term but 41 per cent of students felt that learning online resulted in a poorer quality education.  

The OfS review will be led by Professor Susan Orr, pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching at York St John University, soon to become pro vice-chancellor for education at De Montfort University.

Ms Dandridge said that the exercise would seek to learn lessons from the shift to online learning during the pandemic and gain a deeper understanding of why some universities are continuing to offer online-only elements of courses.

“A report following the review will describe the approaches being taken by universities and colleges and give examples where blended approaches are high quality, as well as those that may not meet our regulatory requirements, providing additional information for universities and colleges, as well as students and applicants,” she promised.

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has previously said that he wants universities to be “open and transparent” with students and urged them to publish the proportion of in-person teaching they can expect.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “Virtual learning is a fantastic innovation, one that can be used to complement and enhance a student’s learning experience, not detract from it, but it should not be used as a cost-cutting exercise.

“The OfS should ensure that students receive the educational experience that their provider has promised and so we look forward to seeing the outcome of this review.”

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

A major issue for student engagement may have come from the online assessment, on top of the online learning. Remote online exams are not considered as serious by many students, collusion in particular is an massive problem, and contract cheating is an industry on the rise. All of this may significantly contribute to students' motivation to study and engage going down.

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