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When Covid-19 forced universities to quickly switch to online and blended learning and teaching, the European University Association was already deep into the preparation of a study on the topic. This article looks at the experience of digital learning and teaching before and during the crisis, what has been accomplished and what challenges likely await.

The use of digital learning and teaching was already growing gradually in European higher education – then Covid-19 made it mandatory almost overnight. This forced an opportunity to test long-known approaches and try out new ones. It also proved the feasibility of online and identified needs and possibilities in the enhancement of the student experience.

But after a year of enforced digital teaching and learning, are there still enough resources, spirit and force for a post-crisis reform project?

A new report by the European University Association (EUA), where I work, provides much food for thought as we approach this debate. It outlines the position of digitally enhanced learning and teaching in European higher education. One of the most comprehensive reports on the topic since 2014, it includes data from 48 European countries on how the higher education sector experienced digital learning and teaching before and at the start of the Covid-19 crisis.

Data collection took place in the first half of 2020 via a survey of institutional leadership; it asked them to report on the state of play before the crisis kicked in, with some questions focusing on their crisis response.

Despite the difficult situation, the survey received 368 responses, and the results are telling: there has been gradual but important change over the years. Already, in 2014, practically all universities provided some digital learning and teaching, and continue to do so today, so there was no major increase expected there. However, overall, the use of digital learning and teaching has become more mainstream, proficient and strategic.

Compared to 2014, today, the question is no longer whether, but how and to what purpose. Despite the ongoing crisis, leadership is confident in acknowledging the principal benefits that digital learning and teaching bring to the student experience (80 per cent), and its ability to transform teaching approaches and innovate pedagogics (89 per cent). Most institutions also find that students (73 per cent) and − to a lesser extent − staff (62 per cent) respond positively to it.

Two distinct purposes were confirmed: most institutions acknowledge digital learning and teaching as a strategic priority for widening access (81 per cent), and a substantial number also report major transformation in this regard (48 per cent). In addition, mature and adult students are the target for their online provision (65 per cent), either through online degree programmes (36 per cent) or non-degree courses (50 per cent).

More than half of the institutions also report that digital learning and teaching have had an important impact on their international outreach (57 per cent) and cooperation (64 per cent) over the past five years and are confident that this will increase significantly in the future (85 per cent). This seems obvious, but back in 2014, if at all, inclusion and internationalisation manifested more as intentions and expectations than as strategic priorities and institutional practice.

In 2020, almost 90 per cent of institutions had a strategy for digitally enhanced learning and teaching, a 25 percentage point increase on 2014. There is also a clear indication that digital approaches require overall coordination in terms of policies (for example, on data protection, ethics and assessment) and also a significant investment.

Next to funding and resources, respondents emphasise strategies, proactive participation of staff and students along with collaboration within and beyond the institution as top enablers for digital learning approaches. When these are lacking, they become barriers.

The findings leave no doubt about present shortcomings. While most institutions have policies, services and infrastructures for digital learning and teaching in place, three-quarters are set to enhance them beyond the Covid crisis.

Notwithstanding the impact of other, external factors − funding being an obvious one − there is a fatigue towards digital and, understandably, a strong desire to return to face-to-face on-campus teaching.

Therefore, many institutions may still find it challenging to translate the crisis experience into an immediate enhancement of learning and teaching, and digital learning and teaching risk being negatively branded as “emergency mode”. Clearly, untapped opportunities for better student-centred learning still exist, and the debate and experimentation on hybrid and HyFlex must continue.

At present, rather than entering a battle on what brings better learning, it could be more strategic to stress the links with wider societal purposes and goals that universities contribute to and which are also on the agenda of most governments: inclusive and lifelong learning; a sustainable green, circular economy; and a geopolitical aspiration that focuses on the common global good.


This article was originally published by Times Higher Education on 17 February 2021.


Michael Gaebel
European University Association

Michael Gaebel is Director of Higher Education Policy at the European University Association.

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