England regulator launches review of blended learning standards

Universities in England will be told which approaches to blended learning do not meet industry regulator requirements as part of a review launched on in-person versus online course delivery.

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

A report – expected in the summer of 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 that it should be provided where it was promised to students.

“This return to relative normality is significant and comes after two extremely difficult years for students and staff,” she said.

“It remains very important for universities and colleges to be clear with their students and applicants how courses will be delivered.

“If universities decide that certain elements should remain online, it should be explicit. Whether online or face-to-face, the quality must be good, and student feedback 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 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 many appreciate the flexibility this provides.

Times Higher Education surveys have previously found that three in five UK universities plan to keep lessons online until the final term, but 41% of students believe online learning leads to lower quality education.

The OfS review will be led by Professor Susan Orr, Professional Vice-Chancellor for Learning and Teaching at York St John’s University, who will soon become Professional Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University DeMontfort.

Ms Dandridge said the exercise would seek to learn lessons from the shift to online learning during the pandemic and better understand why some universities continue to offer course elements online only.

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

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has previously said 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, which can be used to complement and enhance a student’s learning experience, not detract from it, but it does 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 the outcome of this review.”

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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