16 May 2022
- Our study indicates that 81% of UK universities are still delivering some form of ‘blended learning’ (a mixture of online and face-to-face teaching), despite the removal of covid restrictions on in-person teaching in July 2021
- This leaves only 19% of institutions currently committed to offering fully or largely face-to-face teaching
- Vague and ambiguous information from universities is making it impossible for students to know if their chosen course will retain online teaching from September 2022 – and whether going to university means being stuck in their bedrooms watching hours of online lectures at full tuition fees
- Universities must be required urgently to publish clear and detailed data (e.g., example timetables), broken down by course and year, with the planned proportion of face-to-face and online teaching, to give current and prospective students transparency on how courses will be delivered
‘Blended learning’ persists in the summer term
Research on 146 UK universities conducted by UsForThem shows that the prevalence of online learning has persisted over the course of the 2021/2022 academic year, despite the removal of restrictions on face-to-face teaching (social distancing in education settings and work-from-home advice ended with ‘Freedom Day’ on 19 July 2021). Our study indicates that 118 institutions, or 81%, are offering a form of ‘blended learning’ for the summer term (Term 3), with only 28 (19%) committed to fully or nearly fully face-to-face teaching. (Data is based on information on university websites. For some institutions, further clarification as to the teaching methods was sought by phone/e-mail. Source data available from UsForThem upon request)
Universities’ stated plans on teaching delivery have remained consistent over 2021/22, rather than reflecting the gradual easing of restrictions in wider society. Our research found that 122 of 147 universities were offering blended learning in Term 1 (September 2021), and 111 of 146 in Term 2 (February 2022).
Just what is blended learning?
According to the online Cambridge Dictionary, blended learning is “a way of learning that combines traditional classroom lessons with lessons that use computer technology and maybe given over the internet”.  Although there is no one agreed definition of blended learning, in the current context of UK universities this typically refers to a mixture of mostly online lectures and face-to-face seminars, with the online portion replacing face-to-face tuition rather than supplementing it.
This differs from using online or pre-recorded learning elements as enhancements to face-to- face teaching (which some lecturers have been doing for several decades, for instance, to explain upcoming in-person laboratory activities), or recording lectures so that students can revisit sessions. For example, Kyungmee Lee, a lecturer in Technology-Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University, suggests that technology other than the ubiquitous PowerPoint slides can be used in the live lecture theatre to increase student engagement, and that “online learning activities for before and after lectures” (or indeed lab work) could be an effective use of skills developed in pandemic teaching.
Still little clarity on course delivery for September 2022
In 2021, student complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) reached record levels, with the BBC reporting this month that “by far the largest category were complaints about how courses were delivered”. Students starting university in September deserve full transparency on how their courses will be delivered, but do not currently have enough information to make informed choices.
Only 9 of the 118 universities in our survey which are currently delivering blended learning in 2021/22 openly state on their websites that they will be offering blended learning in 2022/23. However, it is likely that universities which have been ‘blended’ for the whole of 2021/22 will remain so for 2022/23. This would be in line with recent statements in support of blended learning – even suggesting that this is driven by the students themselves – from both sector advocacy organisation Universities UK (“Universities have been expanding online and digital provision because students want greater flexibility”  and the Russell Group (“We’ve heard from students that many see benefits in keeping some larger lectures online”.
Unhelpfully, universities are making vague or ambiguous statements regarding teaching delivery for the upcoming year, rather than providing detailed course-specific information, such as in-person teaching hours for each module. It is difficult for prospective students to ascertain exactly how their course will be taught when provided only with general statements such as ‘most teaching will be face-to-face’ or ‘some teaching will be online’, and vague phrases including ‘as much face-to-face as possible’, ‘only large lectures’, ‘full campus experience’, ‘majority of teaching’ and ‘main teaching method’.
Universities must provide example timetables for transparency
The need for transparency in course delivery was discussed in detail at the House of Commons Education Committee session on 22 March, with Dr Caroline Johnson MP posing this critical question of the regulator OfS and university sector representatives: “Would your universities be happy to provide…the proportion of lectures or tutorials delivered face to face for that particular course at that particular university to students…? So people will know that that is a typical term…So, over a term, that is what I can roughly expect to get.” Nicola Dandridge, then Chief Executive of the Office for Students (OfS), agreed with this principle: “…I agree; I think that information should be available. It is a basic consumer protection right that you should know what you are buying. I find that self-evident.” Quintin McKellar Vice-Chair of Universities UK (UUK) responded, “I am a supporter of transparency to the extent that you can deliver it.”
Similarly, in January, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi declared, “I’m going to ask universities to publish the breakdown of the proportion of face-to-face learning before the student goes to university. Most students only get their timetable after they’ve paid for their accommodation when it’s too late. I don’t see any reason why universities can’t publish the proportion of face-to-face learning for each course at each university. Nothing beats data and transparency. That’s something I will be saying to vice-chancellors.”
Universities need to deliver transparency urgently as per Dr Johnson and Nadhim Zahawi’s suggestions, for example by publishing example timetables for each year of a course. These might naturally vary across course modules, but this would at least give a more concrete indication of what universities plan to deliver so that students can make truly informed choices on how to spend their £9,250 per year tuition fee.
Consistent terminology would lessen confusion
University publications often employ confusing terms for ‘digital’ teaching such as ‘non-interactive teaching material’, ‘digitally-enhanced learning opportunities, ‘digital timetabled session’ and ‘dynamic virtual teaching tools’. It is difficult to know if these phrases are simply euphemisms for online lectures or describe teaching material that is meant to supplement the university’s usual provision of face-to-face teaching.
To further complicate matters, there is an array of colourful terms being used to describe the online-based learning systems being adopted, including not only blended learning but also ‘mixed-mode teaching’, ‘dual mode’, ‘face-to-face plus’, ‘best of both worlds, ‘flipped learning’ and ‘hybrid learning’. Consistent terminology and definitions in the sector would increase transparency on course delivery and help ensure that the continuing presence of online lectures isn’t hidden by ambiguous statements or by simply being rebadged.
Read our report on the normalisation of online lectures
Our report from 16 March 2022 on the normalisation of online lectures titled ‘Universities challenged: Time for transparency around online teaching plans’, is available from https://usforthem.co.uk/resources/the-normalisation-of-online-lectures/.