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.

Using Abbing’s brand model to develop a service offer

University leadership teams are currently planning what delivery will look like next academic year. A form of blended learning will likely be maintained even if social distancing rules are relaxed. Educational technology and academic development teams will need to restructure their services to provide academic departments with the support they need to transition from this year’s delivery model to a more sustainable and quality-driven model for the future. But what does that service offer look like and how can it be designed to provide freedom for academic teams to explore what this new future looks like?

Author/Copyright holder: erik roscam abbing. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Erik Roscam Abbing’s brand model could be used as a starting point for Edtech teams to create their new service blueprint. The starting point is to map out the team’s own identity, vision, mission, and behaviours. An understanding of the Capability Maturity Model can also input into the team’s desired brand. I have added below my current thoughts on the first phase for my team. If you have any questions or want to collaborate on ideas, get in contact with me on Twitter @samueljtanner

Team Identity

We have moved towards a Learning Design skill set in the team rather than the more traditional Learning Technologist. Each member of the group would consider themselves as a ‘techie’ and has an expertise that sits somewhere in the nexus of three core technical skills; Learning and teaching, multimedia and technology development, and design. Learning Designers operate as project managers, follow design thinking methodologies using personas and prototypes, and adopt a scholarly approach to quality assurance and continuous improvement practices.


We believe in the transformational nature of technology, and that learning and teaching can be made better when technology is used to design student centred experiences. Teachnology allowed learning and teaching to be:

  • Flexible: accessible to anyone that wants to learn, at whatever stage of life they are at, and whatever their context.
  • Personalised: designed to meet students individual goals and provide choice as these change.
  • Active and collaborative: engaging learning experiences that prepare students with the skills they need for the workplace, including problem-solving, teamwork, communication, and resilience. 
  • Redefined: using technology to create student experiences previously impossible with physical constraints.


By 2025, all students will have a flexible, personalised, and active and collaborative learning experience that uses technology to provide better learning outcomes.


We are: 

  • partnering with academic teams to co-design modules and courses
  • defining what quality looks like and how to get there sustainably 
  • sharing ideas of what is possible and what works
  • building an easy to use and seamlessly integrated technology ecosystem that provides the tools needed 

My ideas will be different from yours

The ideas here are just a brain dump around the direction I am taking my team, but I suggest using the same framework for your institution. Phase two will look at the identity, vision, mission, and behaviour of those teaching at university. My team is a service for academic departments to help them teach students, and so our customers are the lecturers. It is a time of disruption for the role of academics, and the answers to the questions in phase two will be very different now than six years ago when I moved from further education to the university sector. I have some research to do, but I imagine that brand promise will be something along the lines of… 

Brand promise: Your Learning Designer will help you design, develop, and deliver a flexible module quicker, easier, and provide a better student experience than if you had done it independently.

The SAMR Learning Model

The first digital iteration of technology in any field tends to replicate its analogue predecessor, the next iteration then starts to exploit the possibilities

Kevin Kelly

SAMR is a model of learning and teaching created by Dr R. Puentedura frames the use of technology into four categories based on its impact on the student experience. 

SAMR model

  • Enhancement
    • Substitution – Technology acts as a direct substitute, with no functional change
    • Augmentation – Technology acts as a direct substitute, with functional improvement
  • Transformation
    • Modification – Technology allows for significant task redesign
    • Redefinition – Technology allows for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable

The first two categories are where the teaching has been enhanced by technology, and the second two is where it has been transformed by technology. The use of technology in the enhancement categories may bring some benefits, but the real improvements come when technology is used to do something that was not possible or practical previously.

Substitution could be represented by synchronous video calls with all the students and academics present at the same time to replace an in-person seminar or pre-recorded video used to replace lectures. The technology has enabled remote access to learning, but the method of delivery has not really changed. Augmentation then brings some functional improvements such as the students using the chat function to create rich conversations around the seminar topic and answer each other’s questions with higher engagement than in a physical classroom with one person talking at a time and the most confident students taking up much of the dialogue. Lectures might be reproduced in smaller 6-10 minute videos interleaved with automated knowledge checks (self-marking quizzes) that allow all students to test their learning and the academic know which ideas might need revisiting. 

The benefits of digital technologies will come with the modification of teaching and the move from a focus on ‘contact time’ to ‘learning hours’. Academics can be freed from the traditional constraints of the timetable and campus and design teaching around ideas and exploration rather than hour slots and room capacities. Modification might include the mixing of what used to be taught as in-class, such as the presentation of content in a lecture, and independent study, such as reading journal articles or problem sets to create a more natural route through the subject. Modification might be experiencing too by exploiting the interconnected nature of the internet to create new social learning experiences. Redefinition could suggest using technologies to allow students to take greater control of their learning and might include teaching through questions like platforms include and or practical competency-based methods like Khan Academy that adapt to the strengths, weaknesses, and pace of each student. These digital approaches can free up time for academics to work with small groups of students on problem-based projects and other classroom-based active learning methods. 

Redefinition should be the goal in the redesigning of learning and teaching, using the internet to remove the traditional constraints of in-person instruction and create a richer student experience around the subject narrative.

How to use SAMR

Universities could use the SAMR learning model as a benchmarking exercise to help people understand how technology can transform teaching to help planning or as an audit approach at module, course, and department level to understand the maturity of blended and online learning practice. It could just be used as a framework to help academics think about the use of technology in teaching and remove the pressure of moving too quickly. 

It is at this point in the year that university leaders and academics are starting to think about next year. Do we move back to predominantly in-person teaching, continue with our enhanced approaches or learn from emerging transformational practice that will deliver a step-change in the student experience? The more important question might be, how fast do we change? Do we push ahead with improvements and push academics too far or risk losing some momentum to protect teaching staff? 

If possible, we need to maintain the progress we have made this year and allow the majority of academics to evolve their practice with some incremental enhancements while supporting those that want to go faster to create transformational approach. Redefine learning and teaching and can then be seen as a direction of travel with speed controlled by individuals as they become comfortable with the benefits different technologies can bring. 

Watch a six-minute video with Dr Ruben Puentedura describe his model. Get in touch on Twitter if you are thinking about using the SAMR model or are starting to plan what the 2021/22 academic year and beyond might look like.