Students in the UK are shunning online learning and wanting to return to physical classes, prompting educators to reflect whether it is time to relook at virtual learning courses.
In the summer of 2023, the UK witnessed a significant event in the education sector when some 120,000 recent graduates and current students took legal action against their universities. The core of their grievance was the quality of education, which had been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and lecturer strikes.
A significant part of their dissatisfaction revolved around the prevalent use of pre-recorded videos; a sore point given the substantial tuition fees of £9,250 per year. Notable institutions such as University College London, Bristol, Nottingham, Warwick and Liverpool now find themselves under scrutiny.
The collective discontent expressed by these students highlights a broader issue — the shifting perceptions of online education in the post-pandemic era. Many prospective university candidates have had a first-hand experience of online learning, and it hasn’t been universally positive. For some, this has dampened their enthusiasm for remote courses, particularly at the postgraduate level.
Andrew Crisp, a higher education consultant, observes that since the pandemic there’s been a growing demand to get back to face-to-face learning. “Students who missed out on a classroom experience as part of their undergraduate degree, now want a master’s in person,” he says.
This is reflected in the results of a survey conducted by his research firm Carrington Crisp, along with university accreditation body European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD). The study reveals a declining preference for blended (15 percent) or entirely online (14 percent) study, down from 38 percent in 2022. Nearly half of respondents now favour full-time on-campus study, while almost a quarter express a preference for part-time on-campus learning. In contrast, last year saw almost 60 percent of students willing to consider studying the majority of their master’s online, a figure that has now declined to 52 percent.
The reasons for this shift in preferences are multifaceted. Crisp says students are concerned about losing self-confidence, presentation skills and internships, all of which are difficult to develop in online environments. This trend signals a strong demand for in-person opportunities that foster interpersonal skills and networking, both of which are critical to students’ future careers.
However, the impact of COVID-19 on online education is a mixed bag. While some students are gravitating towards traditional classroom experiences, others, particularly older students, are embracing remote teaching. “With work and family commitments, online learning offers the flexibility to learn when time and circumstances allow,” adds Crisp.
Eimear Nolan, director of the flexible executive MBA at Dublin’s Trinity Business School — a programme which targets older students — stresses the importance of distinguishing between courses originally designed for in-person delivery and those hastily transitioned to an online format due to government restrictions during COVID.
“Everyone was forced into a reactive mode with minimal opportunity for reflection. Yes, we survived it — but I am not surprised at all that no one wants to be launched back into that learning environment under those conditions,” she tells QS Insights Magazine.
“I doubt that many academics or students would consider their experiences with online teaching and learning during COVID as a genuine representation of a well-thought-out and intentionally designed online programme. If they do, they would be sorely mistaken.”
On the other hand, Nolan says degree programmes that are purposefully developed for online delivery are well received. But she believes the effectiveness of online education is not universal. “It will be successful for those who actively choose this mode of learning and are comfortable with it; it will not work for those academics and students who are forced into it.”
Managing Director for Europe at online learning platform Abilitie, Alex Whiteleather, echoes this sentiment, noting the limitations of the virtual classroom compared to in-person learning dynamics. “What educators found during the pandemic is that a virtual professor with a slide deck on screen is not able to replace the dynamics of the live classroom — too many social cues, peer learning opportunities and feedback moments are missing,” he says.
Whiteleather also notes that many universities were caught off guard and failed to adapt their teaching methodologies, resulting in an inability to provide the same educational value in an online format. However, he adds that institutions which embraced interactive, peer-based learning witnessed greater acceptance and learner satisfaction with their online courses.
Indeed, Gavin Symonds, Senior Online Programme Manager at Imperial College London, highlights the practical skills students gain from digital learning, such as video conferencing, project management and cloud-based collaboration skills, which are increasingly valuable in today’s remote work environment.
“Online learning environments are essential for fostering remote collaboration skills,” he says. “They offer a secure space for students to experiment and develop their skills, emphasise proficiency with collaboration tools, and highlight that collaboration takes many forms. Furthermore, it encourages learning from the diverse experiences of others, preparing students for the demands of the remote work environment.”
Looking ahead, many universities believe that online and classroom-based teaching can coexist harmoniously. “We are increasingly integrating online study into our curriculum, but in most cases, it is used to supplement our in-person offering, rather than to replace it,” says Anna Goatman, Director of Teaching and Learning at Alliance Manchester Business School.
“For example, an increasing amount of our in-person group work involves students using online tools to collaborate, and students appreciate that online courses allow them to study flexibly and at their own pace.”
But while the pandemic made students and staff alike recognise the positive elements of online learning, it also highlighted the benefits that come with face-to-face learning.
“It can be hard for students to feel part of an immersive learning community when studying entirely online. They can miss out on many of the wider networking and student-experience opportunities that are such an important element of higher education,” Goatman adds.
“As a result, we’re noticing the majority of undergraduate students looking to go on to full-time postgraduate study are opting for in-person programmes. The onus is on us to ensure that we can strike the right balance between the flexibility and accessibility of online learning, and the benefits that come with spending time on campus with peers and mentors.”