Online learning has a future in higher education

Julian Sladdin and Bronwen Bracamonte of Pinsent Masons commented after the recent intensification of the debate over the extent to which online learning should continue in UK higher education following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions.

Last year, the Office for Students (OfS) wrote to institutions asking them to undertake a review of their compliance with consumer law and to assure the regulator of their continued compliance with the guidelines that the regulator produced on consumer protection law.

OfS advice is directly relevant to what universities promise students about the nature of their teaching and assessment, an issue that has been relevant over the past two years when institutions have been forced to rethink the way which they conduct classes in a manner consistent with public health. regulations in force during the pandemic. This has led to an increase in online learning, with a hybrid model of face-to-face and distance learning becoming common in the industry more recently.

However, the easing of public health restrictions across the UK has sparked recent debate about the extent to which distance learning should continue in the higher education sector.

Michelle Donelan, minister for universities in England, said she would be in contact with institutions to reinforce her message that “students deserve to have all the face-to-face teaching experience they would have received before the pandemic” and that “online learning should not only be used as a supplement”. Donelan said students should seek refunds if they are unhappy with the service they receive.

This message was reiterated by Education Secretary Nadim Zawahi in an open letter written to students last month. In his letter, Zawahi said he expected “universities to provide face-to-face instruction” and that online learning “will only be used to supplement and enhance your learning experience, and not to harm her”.

Zawahi stressed the right of students to complain to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA), which is the independent student complaints ombudsman service for higher education in England and Wales. , if they are not satisfied with the nature of the service. they get. In doing so, he signaled the scope they might have to receive compensation through the complaint process.

However, the Wonkhe Higher Education Policy Platform took issue with what it described as Zawahi’s “invitation to revolt”. Jim Dickinson, deputy editor of Wonkhe, suggested that students would find it difficult to file complaints as Zawahi had advocated. Dickinson suggested that complaints about blended or online learning can only succeed when institutions have gone into detail about the planned hours of face-to-face and online learning and when those terms have been breached.

Sladdin and Bracamonte of Pinsent Masons said the debate over online learning and hybrid models is nuanced and that universities should not be forced into a full return to face-to-face learning when it is not. appropriate. They said online learning can be a very effective tool for attracting a diverse student body, given the flexibility it brings, and can produce better teaching and educational outcomes, according to the course concerned.

Sladdin and Bracamonte said that as long as student terms and conditions are clear, intelligible, unambiguous, and timely in relation to the separation of online and face-to-face learning, higher education institutions will comply with their obligations under consumer law.

Sladdin said: “Face-to-face teaching does not always provide the best educational results, and universities should review and be explicit in defining the areas where they are likely to use the e-learning tool. to improve the student experience. Under consumer law, clear and unequivocal information must be provided to students when they register to enable them to assess the suitability of the training to their needs.

Bracamonte said: “Online learning offers increased flexibility and can enhance educational opportunities and universities should not shy away from the learning opportunities uncovered and investments made in this area during the pandemic. As e-learning is an effective tool, universities should not be intimidated into trying to avoid the need for it, but rather exploring how it can add to the overall learning experience.

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