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Increasing Diversity, Access, and Support in Higher Ed With Digital and Blended Learning

Article by Times Higher Education

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Online and in-person teaching can complement—rather than compete with—one another. The added flexibility can also deliver a boost in terms of diversity and inclusion

Using an online platform makes it possible for higher education institutions to reach a more diverse audience, attract new learners and meet changing student demands. However, some universities remain skeptical of online tools, particularly in terms of the technology investment required and the potential dilution of the university brand.

During a round-table discussion at THE Campus Live UK&IE, held in partnership with edX, academics from across the UK came together to discuss the impact of online learning at their institution and to separate the facts from the fiction.

A common concern about digital learning tools is that they compete with existing strategies and diminish the relevance of faculty. Practice and experience demonstrate that the opposite is true, according to Dil Sidhu, senior adviser at edX, citing examples from the hundreds of universities leveraging edX content in their blended solutions.

Online learning is a game changer for educators, allowing them to enhance the teaching and learning experience, not detract from it, while also retaining control of the curriculum and learning experience. Faculty can outsource more time-consuming tasks, such as delivering lectures, so they can focus on student support, guidance and mentorship. Engagement and outcomes also are enhanced as students can learn on their own time, at a pace that works for them, and return to more challenging concepts.

"Digital learning is about enabling students,” said Johnny Mone, head of business innovation at the University of the West of Scotland. “It’s not about the faculty and whether they are comfortable with digital learning. It’s about delivering a radical understanding of the student experience and a bespoke approach to meet each student’s needs.”

The panel agreed that one of the most important factors when introducing online learning was ensuring that it complements existing strategies.

“We are actively going back to departments and telling them that learning is about more than the syllabus; it is everything you put in the platform,” said Sanja Bahun, dean of postgraduate education and research at the University of Essex.

“Digital platforms may not be able to do everything, but they can provide a solution that manages a lot of what we would normally do institutionally.”

Online learning platforms such as edX can complement existing digital strategies by enabling faculty to offer more resources with less investment. Digital learning tools can be used to offer special programming, bridge programs, lectures, practice sets, and projects. The time saved on tasks such as grading problem sets gives faculty more time to advise and mentor their students.

In addition to enhancing and complementing curricula, digital learning drives student engagement and success. This is in part due to the students themselves, who have shown that they want to learn online.

“One of the things we are seeing is a real change in how students want to consume education,” Andrew Turner, associate pro-vice-chancellor of teaching and learning at Coventry University, explained. “Face-to-face attendance remains low, while online attendance hovers around 90 percent.”

A blended learning approach that incorporates digital content into in-person teaching will give staff and students the best of both worlds.

“When we launched our online master’s, it was supposed to be a parallel route,” said Noemi Azzolina, acting director of the digital learning hub at Imperial College London. “What we saw is that our academics automatically blended their teaching because they focused on the outcomes. It significantly widened participation.”

“Students want lectures recorded so they can be viewed remotely, but they probably wouldn’t be happy if they were removed completely,” noted Fiona Strawbridge, director of digital education at UCL. “There may be some interest in abolishing lectures at certain institutions, but this is largely overblown.”

Finally, utilizing online learning platforms will create opportunities for underserved communities. The combination of flexible learning models and offering skills-based teaching attracts students who might otherwise encounter barriers in pursuing higher education.

Members of the panel spoke highly of the way online tools led to a sharp increase in attendance from women and black, Asian, and minority ethnic students, supported by a strong inclusivity message.

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Originally published on Times Higher Education, this article recaps a round-table discussion held at THE Campus Live UK&IE.