higher ed,  onlinepivot

Why do education secretaries hate online learning?

I mean, it’s weird, right? On the one hand, all Governments like to berate education for not fully preparing students for the modern workplace. They unveil plans about how they will be a modern, 21st century, digital economy. And yet, successive education secretaries have berated online learning, which one would think was an essential component in realising both of the previous aims. And not just offer up some valid criticisms around issues of retention or engagement, say, but they use terminology that portrays online learning as, at best, a lazy, cheap option and at worst, some form of abuse.

Gavin Williamson exerted pressure on universities to return to face to face or they would be fined, and viewed online as a cost-cutting measure and they didn’t justify full fees. It seems that Nadhim Zahawi can barely type the words “online learning” in an open letter, without retching. He mentions ‘face-to-face’ eight times in his letter, and in case you don’t get the message: “We expect face-to-face teaching to continue” & “We all know that face-to-face education is the best way for children and young people to learn”. And in an interview with GBNews (not going to link to it) he gave the gammons what they want when he declared “there is no excuse for online teaching”, in the manner that someone might declare there is zero tolerance for abuse within their organisation.

And similar opinions have been voiced in other countries, so in order to save myself potential damage from excessive eye-rolling and heavy sighing, I’ve tried to pick through the reasons behind this seemingly irrational distaste. Here are my contenders for reasons, some more valid than others:

A genuine concern about the validity of online learning – I’m not here to pretend online is always done well, or that it suits everyone or that there aren’t issues. So maybe they’re just concerned about it. If so, I would suggest not painting it as a cheap option (it isn’t), or lazy (definitely not) and instead focus on promoting the benefits and funding areas to overcome the issues.

Playing to the voters – this is probably a strong one. GBNews, the Daily Mail – these are core constituents who are generally sceptical of online things and anything invented after 1955. They will definitely view an online degree as inferior, and many of them may be parents, or grandparents of university aged children, and so it makes sense to play to them.

Concern for students – this may also be a valid frame, particularly if one views students as customers. The customers have paid for a face to face education, and that is not what they are getting. Therefore they should get a refund. The ‘product’ view makes sense with washing machines, but has always been a difficult perspective for education.

Faulty generalisation – nearly every Education Secretary seems to feel that their own experience of education is the only dataset they need to draw upon. They want Latin, discipline and Oxbridge type higher education. Online learning does not look like any of these things, so is, ipso facto, a bad thing.

Ignorance – I haven’t seen any desire to engage with what online, or blended, learning really looks like in a positive sense from any recent education secretary. And so they operate in a state of wilful ignorance about how effective it can be, and what is required to make it so.

What all of the above combine to do is to create a lack of motivation to engage with online learning in any meaningful sense by consecutive education secretaries. There is nothing to be gained, politically, from doing so. But there is a real potential for some nations to grasp this opportunity and make online a central part of higher ed provision, and that will do more to prepare students for any workplace or society of the future than any number of cosy seminars with Oxbridge dons.


  • Will

    Good post Martin. I think you’ve captured the reasons and I’d add one more – misrepresenting or misnaming the problem. I think the problem is around universities that are geared to offer the ‘whole campus experience’ not providing that. The issue could be described as ‘not providing their normal learning services’ and the message would be ‘return to normal learning services like schools have done’. Many unis have used the pandemic to innovate in their teaching approach and some don’t want to go back. The question is then do we have evidence from students and teaching staff?

    • mweller

      Hi Will! I’m sure we do have the evidence, although I think we’re also guilty of not always presenting this in the easiest manner. But beyond that, I’m not really sure evidence would matter, it seems more ideological.

    • mweller

      Hi Mark – although I think some nicely packaged evidence that appealed to things they value might help, I also feel it is more of an ideological mistrust

  • Lynne Dixon

    Perhaps some of the scepticism is fuelled by non-pedagogical considerations? If ‘going to university’ is viewed as a rite of passage, it has to be recognised that organising the full ‘sex & drugs & rock’n’roll’ experience in one’s own bedroom, with mum & dad downstairs, presents something of a challenge for the average 18 year-old…
    This would possibly fall somewhere between ‘faulty generalisation’ & ‘playing to the voters’.

    • mweller

      Hi Lynne, yes you’re right, this would be a factor and is probably a mix of the two – it also brings in the customer perspective, in that ‘life experience’ is partly what students are paying for

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