Gravity Assist, the Office for Students new digital teaching and learning review

On the 25th of February, The Office for Students released their digital teaching and learning review paper titled Gravity assist: propelling higher education towards a brighter future. The report states that in November 2020, 93% of undergraduates and 89% of postgraduate students received most or all their learning digitally. The scale of change is impressive when you consider that 47% of the academics questioned had no digital teaching experience before the pandemic. Universities have done in weeks what most had planned to do over the next five to ten years.

The sudden move online has effected teaching student satisfaction; 67% of students polled said they were content with their digital teaching, and 61% said it was in line with their expectations. 29% of students said teaching was worse than expected, and 48% said they had not been asked for feedback on teaching by their institution. The lack of satisfaction can be explained by only 21% of teachers saying they were very confident they had the skills to design and deliver digital teaching and learning, and 20% are not confident in their skills for the new teaching methods.  

Some of the changes enforced by lockdowns will have a lasting impact on the workplace and the classroom. The report found that 70% of academic staff think digital learning and teaching represent exciting future delivery opportunities. The report suggests five key benefits of online learning: increased flexibility, personalised learning, increased career prospects, pedagogical opportunities, and global opportunities.

The six components of successful digital teaching and learning

The paper provides a model for good digital learning and teaching. The model involves six core components to help universities define quality online and blended learning and then create a plan to achieve it:

  1. Digital teaching must start with appropriately designed pedagogy, curriculum and assessment.
  2. Students must have access to the right digital infrastructure.
  3. Good access enables staff and students to build the digital skills necessary to engage.
  4. Technology can then be harnessed strategically, rather than in a piecemeal or reactive way, to drive educational experience and outcomes.
  5. Inclusion for different student groups must be embedded from the outset.
  6. All the elements need to be underpinned by a consistent strategy. 


The lessons identified by the gravity assist paper and the core components generated from them have been condensed into a set of recommendations for high-quality digital learning:

  1. Redesign pedagogy, curriculum and assessment
    1. Design teaching and learning specifically for digital delivery using a ‘pedagogy-first’ approach.
    2. Co-design digital teaching and learning with students at every point in the design process.
    3. Seize the opportunity to reconsider how assessments align with intended learning outcomes.
  2. Ensure digital access
    1. Proactively assess students’ digital access on an individual basis and develop personalised action plans to mitigate any issues identified.
    2. Build learning and procure technology around the digital access actually available to students, not the access they would have in a perfect world
  3. Build digital skills
    1. Communicate clearly to students the digital skills they need for their course, ideally before their course starts.
    2. Create mechanisms that allow students to track their digital skills throughout their course and allow these skills to be recognised and showcased to employers.
    3. Support staff to develop digital skills by incentivising excellence and continuous improvement.
  4. Harness technology effectively
    1. Streamline technology for digital teaching and learning and use it consistently as far as possible.
    2. Involve students and staff in decisions about the digital infrastructure that will be used and how it will be implemented.
    3. Foster a culture of openness to change and encourage calculated risk-taking.
  5. Embed inclusion
    1. Review and evaluate whether provision is inclusive and accessible.
    2. Design inclusively, build a sense of belonging and complement this with tailored support for individual students.
    3. Adapt safeguarding practices for the digital environment
  6. Plan strategically
    1. Ensure a strong student voice informs every aspect of strategic planning.
    2. Embed a commitment to high-quality digital teaching and learning in every part of the organisation.
    3. Proactively reflect on the approach to the digital and physical campuses.

Six actions for 2021-22

Universities are currently planning the 2021/21 academic year, and the paper included a checklist of considerations that align with the recommendations.

  1. Assess students’ digital access on a one-to-one basis and address issues before learning is lost
  2. Inform students what digital skills they will need
  3. Involve students in designing teaching and learning
  4. Equip staff with the right skills and resources
  5. Make the digital environment safe for all students
  6. Plan how you will seize the opportunity for the longer-term

The paper is not regulatory guidance, but the clear message is that Universities should be moving to blended learning long-term. Institutions should be reflecting on the progress and challenges of the 2020/21 academic year and use the recommendations to plan out the future direction of their delivery model.

There is a big focus on digital access and skills for students. The access recommendations include assessing students’ digital access on an individual basis to put in place mitigations that allow them to continue learning, and design learning around the technology students have available. Simple solutions include:

  • Stating a courses technology needs for students before they start.
  • Creating accessible materials.
  • Considering bandwidth limitations.
  • Making asynchronous alternatives to live events available to students with limited or unreliable internet.  

The six actions do not present anything surprising, but this might represent an acknowledgement of the work that has been done this year by academics and professional services staff to move to online and blended learning. The one notable exception is within action three, to have a mechanism to involve students in learning design beyond the usual feedback opportunities. Each of the action points for co-design involves student feedback, so it is not clear if students should be directly involved in learning design or just an effort to increase the feedback collected and a need for increased responsiveness to it. What is clear is that student feedback needs to far more regular than mid-module and the end of module reviews, and academic will have to be prepared to update their delivery quickly in response.

You can read the full report on the Office for Students website. Let me know on Twitter what you think.

Point A to Point B

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.


Much of the work we do in educational technology helps people understand where they are, where they want to be, and then support them to achieve it. In the book Intervention, Dan John‘s process working with athletes has many parallels with our work with academics.

Some teams, departments, or universities know precisely where they want to be-Point B, but they are not clear on where they are now, Point A. In this situation, our job is to identify their current position, then create a plan to reach their goal. Others know exactly where they are but need help to see a realistic goal, requiring ideas, standards, and progressions. A third more common group is unrealistic about their Point A and/or Point B and needs help to identify both before making a plan and starting work. We need to know both point A and point B to draw the line between them.

There are things that everyone we work with needs; ideas of innovative practice to improving student experience, more straightforward and better-integrated technology, comprehensive training and support, and a clear development process. We also need effective project management and a schedule that takes into account the academic calendar. But some tools can help assess where a team is on their journey and the next step in their progression, such as the Quality Matters Standards, the OLC’s Quality Scorecard, and the SAMR learning model


  • If people know the goal, assess where they are and connect the dots.
  • If people know where they are now, but either want an unrealistic goal or do not know what they want, show them the next step and connect them.
  • With everyone, always focus on the process and the keys to success. 

If you are currently working on your service offer, spend some time on a set of questions and a collection of principles to find Point A, Point B, and the most direct route. A systematic approach to educational developments will help you find the straight line.

HE teaching staff want more Edtech

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Jisc, a not-for-profit organisation for educational digital services and solutions in the UK, released its annual Digital experience insights survey on 23 November. The 2020 survey received 2,677 responses from teaching staff from 14 universities between October 2019 and July 2020. 48% of submissions came after the UK went into lockdown on 23 March 2020.

Results I found interesting:

  • 95% said they either enjoyed trying out new and innovative technologies or were comfortable using mainstream technologies, but 4% preferred not to use technology unless they had to. 
  • 72% were either ‘very’ or ‘quite’ confident at trying out new technologies and 12% were either ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ confident
  • 79% are motivated to use it in their teaching, and 6% were not very or not at all motivated.
  • 43% rated the quality of support to develop digital skills provided as either ‘excellent’, ‘best imaginable’ or ‘good’.
  • 33% of staff asked for more training, and 25% asked for an organisation strategy, recognition, and culture when asked what one thing could be done to help you develop your digital skills
  • Only 7% agree they receive reward and recognition for digital skills developed.
  • Since lockdown, there has been an increase in staff discussing their digital skills informally with managers (+5%), in meetings with colleagues (+7), and staff meetings and CPD sessions (5+).


The forced move to blended learning with social distancing in the UK has increased online delivery at universities. There has been massive investment from both institutions and technology companies to support academic staff to develop their digital skills and improve the technologies they use. The survey report suggests that staff need now to be given time to innovate and be creative to build their digital teaching. In response to only 7% of staff feeling any recognition for digital skills they have developed, Jisc also suggested that creating an organisational culture that recognises and rewards these endeavours is a priority. The commitment and time staff have dedicated over the last six months to adapt their teaching practice to use technology has moved the sector forward many years. However, organisations still have a lot to do to consolidate this progress and support the 4-12% of academics that are either not confident or prefer not to use technology. 

“Moving forward, we need a stronger focus on supporting staff to gain and nurture the skills to embed digital within curriculum design and redesign. This will help students to develop a preparedness for remote teaching and learning, supporting their digital capabilities and increasing their confidence in the digital workplace.”

Sarah Knight, Jisc’s head of data and digital capability

key challenges:

Jisc suggests three priorities for future developments:

  • Strategic leadership is vital in driving digital transformation.
  • More resource is needed to support staff to develop pedagogically informed digital practices.
  • The digital environment and infrastructure require further investment.

Successful digital transformations require the organisation’s leadership team to make a clear signal of the digital vision and its purpose. It could be argued that the reason for the successful large scale adoption of digital learning this academic year has been due to a critical mission to provide students with the best possible educational experience in a time when they need it most. The next step is for leadership is to evolve this from a message of necessity to an aspirational one. This strategy needs to be underpinned with a robust implementation plan and investment. 

Teaching online or blending online and campus-based delivery requires new skills and practices. More resource is needed to support staff to develop high-quality teaching. Jisc’s survey suggests that academics are motivated to use technology, and most have confidence, but they want more support and guidance. Universities need to create more opportunities to discuss digital skills in informal settings such as meetings and embedding them into formal ones, including recruitment, induction, and appraisals. Demand is high for regular, continuous professional development (CPD) and ongoing support, in a variety of formats, on effective teaching with digital technology. Staff want this CPD to be collaborative with other academics to learn, share, and develop practices specific to their context or subject area.  

Finally, for digital learning and teaching to be successful in the long term, Universities digital infrastructure will require significant ongoing investment. The quality of available technologies and teaching spaces are highly variable across universities in the UK. The more emerging digital practice is shared, and technology is used at home becomes more seamless, student and staff expectations will continue to rise. Staff tend to be less satisfied than students with University technology, wanting good quality and consistent provision across all their teaching environments and a suitable personal device that works reliably with university systems. Virtual learning environments need to continue to updated and improve, become more usable, be better integrated, and be appropriately implemented with staff.

UK universities have invested heavily in resource and infrastructure over the last six months to support staff and students in the move to blended learning. They have provided clear leadership in the rapid move online. This leadership will need to work even harder and be backed up with resource and infrastructure to maintain staff motivation and goodwill towards digital learning once social distancing rules are removed.

Get the full report here on Jisc’s website, and get in touch with me on Twitter if you want to talk about what happens next in digital learning.