From the margins to the mainstream: The online learning rethink and its implications for enhancing student equity
From being largely at the margins of higher education for many years, online learning now finds itself in the mainstream. This paper offers a critique of the online learning literature both pre- and post-2020, looking at changes in response to this shift. Evidence tells us that online learning plays a significant role in enhancing student equity, widening higher education access and participation for many students who would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to attend university on campus. This includes students from government-identified equity backgrounds, as well as other student cohorts underrepresented at university, such as older working students, parents, and others with caring responsibilities, and those from families with no previous experience of university. The mainstreaming and normalising of online learning now presents an opportunity for universities to learn from both past and emerging evidence, to evaluate past practice and offer a more flexible learning experience that better meets the needs of an even wider range of students. Keeping online learning firmly in the mainstream, while taking an evidence-based approach to ensuring the quality of its design and delivery, has the potential to enhance student equity on a much broader scale.
Implications for practice or policy:
Improving the quality of online learning, using evidence-based research to design and deliver it more effectively, will enable more students to stay and succeed at university.
Continuing to offer online study options for all students, that is, keeping it in the mainstream, will further enhance student equity.
Mainstreaming online learning options as part of standard university practice will enable more students to benefit from the greater flexibility of both fully online and hybrid models.
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