Guest blog: What have we learned online?

05 Mar 2021

The University of the West of Scotland's Professor Jonathan Powles writes on the need to reframe the debate around face-to-face vs online learning

Where does learning happen? 

Learning happens inside your head – it’s a transformation of you as a person; your skills, understanding, knowledge and attitudes. There’s no requirement for this to occur in a certain place, time or setting.

The pandemic has forced universities to completely reshape their delivery of learning and teaching. But this shift gives us the opportunity to take stock and reassess the fundamental assumptions about how students learn, and how universities should teach.

There are undoubtedly huge positives to on-campus, face-to-face learning. For certain areas of study, like dentistry or music, “hands-on” learning is essential. Learning together harnesses the personal and developmental benefits which have driven the university ideal for centuries – exposure to diverse and challenging ideas, cultures, values and people; learning how to understand each other and work together.

However, we are beginning to understand how to forge and preserve this human connection online, and leverage the wider societal and educational benefits this can bring.

Throughout the pandemic, online learning has frequently been compared to face-to-face, with many asking simplistically: “what’s better?” We need to reframe this debate. It’s not a question of which is better. It’s about what is best for you.

Contrary to current narratives, a technology-enabled learning experience promotes high-quality learning. Studies have shown that hybrid learning results in better, deeper understanding than sitting passively in a lecture theatre. Virtual learning platforms encourage active learning, utilising innovative techniques drawn from social media, AI and virtual reality to engage with students in direct and personalised ways. Academics can use big data and analytics to see where individual students require tailored support.

Online learning also has the ability to widen access to higher education in a way we’ve never seen before.

Perhaps you’re a parent with caring responsibilities, in a rural town. Maybe you have a nine-to-five job, with bills to pay. You can now study when and where you like. The most active time of day in UWS’s virtual learning environment is 9.20pm - after the housework is done and the kids are in bed.

Technology-enabled learning is also an important tool in the broader social justice agenda. By specifically designing online learning that is inclusive and participatory, we level the playing field, creating safe spaces for learners of all backgrounds and cultures, ages and circumstances.

I’ve been inspired by the speed at which academics and students have adapted to online learning. The pandemic forced us to make significant changes – quickly. But as we now see the light at the end of the tunnel, we must recognise that over the past year, our students have learned a great deal. And our universities should have too.

Professor Jonathan Powles is Vice Principal for Teaching, Learning and Students at the University of the West of Scotland. He can be found on Twitter @JonPowles

A version of the piece originally appeared in The Times on Monday 1 March 2021.