Universities and the digitalisation of teaching

Melina Díaz Christiansen, Fundación CYD

December 08, 2021 11:30 (CET)

Are universities ready for online learning? (c) CYD

As was the case in so many other sectors, the situation of universities in the early stages of the pandemic was complex since the existing models had to be redefined and a transition towards the digitalisation of education introduced. In addition, all this had to be carried out as quickly as possible to ensure a certain level of quality in teaching for the students who were going to study during one of the most difficult academic years that higher education had ever had to face. However, was the university sector ready to undertake this transition to digital teaching?

In order to answer this question, the data that could be obtained from the extensive U-Multirank database for the year 2020 have been used; this source has made it possible to obtain information on the digitalisation of education for the year in which the COVID-19 pandemic began.  

The strategic vision of the university sector

An essential element to be able to make any transition – in this case to undertake a transition to a digital model of education – is to have a strategic plan. For this reason, the universities taking part were asked whether they had such a plan.

The data show that 17.6% of universities in the EU had a complete plan with aims and specific measures. On the other hand, 42.1% of EU universities had a section within their respective strategic plans in which online teaching was given some consideration. In contrast, approximately 40% of EU universities had no plan at all.

The online teaching of university courses

If those courses that were taught online prior to the pandemic having an impact are analysed, it can be seen that the total number was not particularly high; they represent no more than 1.5% of all the universities that take part in U-Multirank and only 1.3% of those in the EU that have participated in this system of ranking.

This analysis has also taken into account the data derived from the fields of knowledge included in the U-Multirank surveys for 2018, 2019 and 2020. If the percentage of exclusively face-to-face courses is compared with those that were offered both in person and online, it can be seen that the latter form of teaching also represented a very low figure for the universities in the EU as a whole, no more that 1.62%.

It should also be noted that, if these data are broken down for each of the areas of knowledge, by using detailed information provided by the universities, we can also identify that there are differences between these fields.

In the case of undergraduate courses, the fields in which the most degrees were taught online or through blended learning were business studies (11.9%), economics (7.3%), linguistics (9.7%) and earth sciences/geology (8.6%).

In regard to master’s degrees – where a greater presence of degrees that are not only taught face-to-face can again be detected – the study subjects that most stood out were nursing (37.5%), education (19.30%), social work (15.38%), business studies (14.56%) and sociology (14.29%).

Students’ assessment of the digitalisation of teaching

An additional way of analysing the digitalisation of universities is to consider how students evaluated this process, as well as how these students experienced this transition in the classroom. With this aim in mind, U-Multirank included the ‘e-learning’ indicator, which combines several important aspects of the digitalisation of online teaching, such as the use of classic digital means, online assessment and interactive tools.

If we cross-analyse the two aspects referred to (the methods of digital teaching and the assessment of digitalisation by students), the data will also lead us to conclude that different areas of knowledge were not equally prepared to face up to this challenge. It is possible to find areas such as business studies, economics, education and computer science that did have a relatively high number of degrees taught online and which, moreover, also stood out for their digital teaching methodology. After that, we can detect other study subjects that applied the use of digital teaching methods somewhat better, leading to a better evaluation of this format on the part of the students (industrial, environmental and electrical engineering), but which, however, are not study subjects that stand out for offering a large number of degrees that are taught remotely in their entirety. Finally, there are the subjects of chemistry, chemical engineering, social geography, physics and history, which the data reveal to have been less well prepared for such a challenge.


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