Several universities have been criticised for not rushing their students back to the lecture hall as term starts. There are even some accusations that universities do not have their students interests at heart in this decision. However, a conversation on best teaching methods, and reflecting on what can be learnt from teaching during the pandemic, should be valued not criticised.

For universities to provide the best possible education, they need to consider how best to use technology. They also need to consider how to involve businesses to provide the practical education that many students are calling for.

An EY survey of ‘Gen Z’ (14-24 year olds) from across the world, found that around three-quarters (74%) of surveyed students wish to continue virtual instruction in some form when the pandemic concludes. The survey found that when asked how the education system could be improved, the most popular responses were experiential opportunities that engage the business community: “real-life work” and “professional mentorship”. The lowest ranked were options aligned with traditional teaching methods: lectures, student teaching and field trips.  The same study indicated that this generation were not confident that traditional subject matter or traditional teaching methods were preparing them for life. The report concluded that this generation does not want to learn through traditional education but “they want to learn through the real-world experiences that today’s fluid economy offers.”

Considering the disquiet amongst university students with not returning to the lecture hall, the findings of this study are interesting. It’s clearly very important that students are brought on the journey of what teaching methods work best and universities must engage with them to highlight the benefits of moving beyond the traditional teaching experience.

Perhaps one of the problems with the shift to online learning is that when the pandemic struck, a rapid change to online learning was driven by necessity rather than choice. However, given time to implement a blended learning approach fully, what parts of the online learning experience enhance opportunity? It’s only right that universities give this their full consideration.  Many universities had been considering, even prior to pandemic, whether the format of a lecture is out-dated. Considering that research indicates that the majority of people have an attention span of about 15 to 20 minutes, long speeches explaining complicated subjects is perhaps not the optimum way to learn. Smaller groups, more interaction, discussion and debate has been the direction of travel for a while.

This type of learning aligns with the skills employers want from students. Problem solving, communication, critical thinking and creativity are frequently the skills employers list as in top demand in the many surveys conducted on the subject (for example see here). Interestingly in the previously mentioned EY survey, ‘Gen Z’ list the top three traits of an ideal career being: generating original ideas; solving complex problems; and interacting with people. It’s positive that employers and those starting their careers are citing the same skills as being important.

These are skills that will not solely be developed through listening to a lecture, whether delivered online or in person. These are skills that can be learnt through interacting with other students, and through real-life hands-on learning.

The pandemic has forced many institutions to think outside of the box and how to deliver this digitally. A paper from the QAA, published earlier this year, outlined how high-quality, digital delivery of courses and assessment can have a positive impact on student engagement. It also highlighted many institutions that had successfully used digital platforms to encourage new forms of collaboration between students as well as with industry partners.

The debate on changing teaching methods needs to go beyond discussion on whether lectures should be delivered online. We need to think more broadly about how best to provide students with an education that prepares them for the world of work. Several universities are thinking outside the box of teaching methods and incorporating practical learning into their courses. However, while this is done on an individual institutional level, the national conversation on best practice is typically oversimplified and risks limiting teaching innovation.

Universities, students and businesses are broadly on the same page when it comes to what education should provide. Universities have rightly opened a conversation on how this can best be delivered. The answer will not be the same for all institutions – but working with employers, students and wider stakeholders will undoubtedly be essential to all.