Is virtual the ‘new normal’ in Higher Ed?

by James Walker, Chris Brewster, Rita Fontinha, Washika Haak-Shaheem, Fabio Lamperti
The pandemic forced schools to adopt online teaching and research. Are these changes permanent?
  • Despite gaining more experience with online learning during the pandemic, most students and faculty prefer in-person instruction.
  • Participants also appreciate the benefits of hybrid learning, which can engage students and provide professors with teaching tools.
  • When it comes to collaborating with fellow researchers, faculty prefer in-person opportunities to online events.
COVID-19 required higher education to make a huge, almost overnight shift in the way it operates. Almost every classroom, conference, and collaboration moved online. Many industry observers predicted that the pandemic would be a “radical disruptor” that heralded the dawn of a virtual day for the field of higher education.

While scholars have developed a good understanding of how academics were affected in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, considerably less is known about what is now emerging as the “new normal.” There is limited evidence to show whether the shift to online teaching and research signals a permanent step change, or whether it was simply a temporary response to the challenges of the pandemic.

To discover the answer, researchers at Henley Business School in the United Kingdom gathered longitudinal evidence from two surveys of a matched representative sample of 450 academics. The first survey was conducted in 2020, during the initial lockdown; the second took place near the end of 2021, once a “new normal” had been established.

We have put together a full report on our preliminary findings. But our initial conclusion is this: The pandemic did not cause higher education to wholeheartedly embrace a virtual existence. Rather, academia is seeking to understand its limits and find its place within the virtual space.

Attitudes toward online learning

Prior to the pandemic, the literature on virtual teaching argued that instructors were biased toward face-to-face learning and that they were unwilling or unable to grapple with the virtual world. Many proponents of online learning insisted that if faculty had the opportunity to join the online world, they would see the light about the benefits of virtual classrooms.

Once the pandemic began, an unwillingness to engage in online delivery was no longer an option. In that sense, the virus ushered in a great online teaching experiment. However, it wasn’t a fair test of determining whether online teaching could favorably compare to and compete with face-to-face delivery. During the early phases of the crisis, the sudden migration of all learning, teaching, and assessment functions into the online domain was a chaotic, dysfunctional experience. It is unsurprising that, when responding to our first survey, 80 percent of academics said that online delivery made it difficult for them to determine whether students understood what was being taught.

We wondered if faculty would still feel the same after they’d had considerable experience in the online space. Eighteen months after our initial survey, we questioned academics again. But the numbers were similar. Eighty-three percent of business school academics said that online instruction did not make it easier for students to understand what was being taught. Only 17 percent of faculty said they preferred online teaching.

Do these responses mean that the great online teaching experiment was largely unsuccessful? The study found important evidence that this was not the case. In the second survey, only 40 percent disagreed with the statement that online learning provided a better teaching experience than face-to-face classrooms, compared to 60 percent in the first survey. This suggests that an increasing number of faculty consider themselves better at preparing for and providing online instruction - they just don’t prefer it.

A shift toward hybrid

While we did not survey students as part of this research, we did look at information gathered by other organisations to get a sense of how students feel about online learning. Observers had predicted that today’s students - many of them digital natives - would readily adapt to and even prefer virtual classes. But we failed to find wholesale support for online education among this group.

For instance, in the U.K.’s National Student Survey, which measures student satisfaction, only 47.6 percent of respondents said they were content with the delivery of learning and teaching during the pandemic. Even MOOCs, which were expected to transform education, have not lived up to their revolutionary billing.

Our conclusion is that only a small minority of students and instructors prefer online learning and teaching. Therefore, it’s not surprising that during the 2021–22 academic year, most institutions returned to face-to-face classroom instruction. Even the universities that initially considered moving entirely online, such as the University of Manchester, have reversed their policies. Most institutions now insist upon at least some face-to-face elements.

However, our most important finding might be that while neither faculty nor students desire a wholesale shift of learning from in-person to online delivery, many welcome the integration of digitally delivered synchronous and asynchronous content. Therefore, we expect that the disruptions caused by the pandemic will lead to a more subtle move toward blended and hybrid approaches.

In fact, the biggest benefit from the great online learning experiment is that we now understand that online and in-person learning modes are complementary. We have seen that online instruction can enhance learning, engage students, enable teachers, and provide new tools for measuring learning outcomes. But we have also realised that students do not simply crave learning opportunities. Students want learning opportunities that allow them to interact with classmates and live integrated lives that are not broken up into discrete chunks of separate activities.

The challenge for researchers

In our surveys of academics, we also sought to understand how the pandemic affected their role as researchers. Over the past two years, a variety of platforms have enabled scholars to come together in online settings instead of attending conferences in-person. The benefits have been tremendous. We have reduced the hours spent on travel, thus freeing up precious time for research; we have been able to listen to speakers from around the globe who were brought in for next to no cost.

But are these remote conferences satisfying to attendees? In our initial survey, we asked academics to agree or disagree with the statement that online events are as effective as analogous ones. Sixty-five percent disagreed. However, as the pandemic progressed and online events became the new normal, that number dropped to 46 percent. In addition, of those who did not completely agree with the statement, 14 percent said it was sometimes true.

Even so, academics continue to prefer in-person events - and one particular finding highlights why. In 2020, when we conducted our first survey, 27 percent of respondents agreed that the pandemic had made it more difficult to collaborate with co-authors and colleagues outside the U.K. At the end of 2021, that number had risen to 47 percent. This means that, despite advances in online platforms, researchers felt their ability to collaborate had actually deteriorated as the pandemic went on.

There are other reasons scholars would prefer to meet face-to-face. In virtual settings, it’s not as easy to network, read nuances in statements and gestures, or interrogate colleagues on their work. It’s not as easy to develop and sustain a strong research culture, particularly if colleagues have not already built relationships. Clearly, academics will attend remote conferences if there are no other options, and they appreciate the advantages that such events have, but in general they would rather gather in person.

A better understanding

Many observers had predicted that the pandemic would lead higher education to enthusiastically adopt a more virtual existence. But the real result seems to be that we have developed a better understanding of the digital world and how to operate within it.

Many of the academics responding to our surveys indicated that the journey to online learning and collaboration is far from complete - and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. We still have much to learn about successfully conducting online activities, but the pandemic has set us on the right path.

  • James Walker: Head of International Business & Strategy at Henley Business School, the University of Reading
  • Chris Brewster: Professor of International Human Resource Management at Henley Business School, the University of Reading
  • Rita Fontinha: Associate Professor of International Business and Strategy at Henley Business School, the University of Reading
  • Washika Haak-Shaheem: Associate Professor in Human Resource Management at the Henley Business School, the University of Reading
  • Fabio Lamperti: PhD scholar in International Business and Strategy at the University of Perugia.

Useful resources:
AACSB Insights
AACSB Insights publishes perspectives from leading voices in global business education, the latest business school data and insights, and views on the current and future state of business.
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