Universities plan to keep some student services and lectures online after seeing a range of benefits during the pandemic, vice-chancellors have said.
A briefing from Universities UK (UUK), which explores universities’ experiences of remote education, suggests a number of positive changes have emerged on campuses as a result of Covid-19.
Many institutions plan to continue virtual open days, online careers fairs and digital internships, it says.
Universities are also considering running some induction week activities online to support students who may not be able to attend sessions on campus.
The report comes after more in-person teaching and social activities have taken place this autumn term, but some universities are still keeping some lectures online as they adopt a blended approach to learning.
“We need to make the most of the benefits and capitalise on investment in the digital transformation that higher education has undergone while at the same time bringing back the advantages of in-person experiences, as the pandemic allows,” the briefing from UUK says.
In some institutions, moving traditional in-person lectures online is being considered to free up timetables for more in-person tutorials while others are considering a mix of online and in-person lectures, according to the report.
It suggests access to academic and student support services expanded through the use of digital platforms.
Wellbeing sessions no longer needed to limit numbers because of room capacity as they were online while students were able to engage with a wider range of industries through online careers fairs, the briefing says.
However, vice-chancellors, who took part in a series of discussions for the report, recognise there are “challenges that need to be addressed” with increased digital provision and blended approaches.
The report says: “Any move towards more digital teaching and learning will only be as successful as the equipment and the technology is accessible to all.”
It adds: “Digital hardship funds have gone some way to plugging this gap while universities have provided laptops and broadband access for students to use at home.
“However, the challenge should not be underestimated. A sustainable funding model to support students experiencing digital poverty needs to be developed.”
It comes as a separate survey of more than 6,500 college and university staff revealed concerns about access to technology amid online lessons.
The poll, from education technology organisation Jisc, suggests around four in five staff experienced technical challenges when teaching was online.
Dr Peter Bonfield, vice-chancellor and president of the University of Westminster, who chaired the UUK series of roundtables to establish lessons learned from online delivery, said: “Our work has found that digital learning has given an array of clear benefits for different student groups that need to be considered and included alongside those offered by in-person education.
“For example, for students who may be juggling work, family and caring responsibilities alongside their studies, for those with disabilities, for international students and more.
“Whilst we almost all love and enjoy working and studying as physical communities together on campus, it is important that the advantages of digital delivery alongside face-to-face delivery are not lost and are implemented to further improve the student experience and the quality of education offered to them.
“The sector needs to, and will continue to, develop blended learning options because it is clearly in the interests of students to do so.”
A National Union of Students (NUS) spokesperson said: “Students’ unions and disabled students have campaigned for years for lectures to be captured and provided online, as this improves accessibility.
“It’s important that this is not lost and that online learning enhances and supplements the in-person student experience – but does not replace it entirely.
“Nothing can replace the ability to socialise with and learn from your peers, or to engage with face to face, interactive, teaching and learning and to have a full campus life.
“We are concerned that for some universities online learning has been used as a cost-cutting exercise, brought about by universities needing to stay financially afloat in a marketised system.”