Written by Prof David Hopkins, Prof Kendall Jarrett and George Foote

This summary blog is based on the RISE Research paper: Enhancing Social Mobility in the Digital Learning Age, which can be found here.

As a research institute for social mobility and education, RISE is committed to developing the policies and practices that contribute positively towards a learners’ social mobility. For many HEIs committed to supporting social advancement, the rapid shift to digital education in response to the Coronavirus pandemic signals a significant shift in the learning and teaching offering with the potential for social mobility to be marginalised. As the sector now begins to take stock of lessons learnt and reviews plans for learning and teaching in a Coronavirus-aware world, the relationship between institution, social mobility, and the growth in digital education requires both prompt consideration and informed action.

The conclusions from our recent review so far are that:

1. Digital Learning, particularly blended approaches, can have a positive effect on student outcomes and social mobility.
2. To achieve this however, means in many cases a major shift in the pedagogy employed by HEIs.
3. The disruption in learning brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic requires HEIs to make a rapid and wholesale shift in the use of existing and innovative digital learning solutions.

So, what implications does this have for HEIs and their responsibilities for social mobility?

Implication 1 – Embrace Blended Approaches

For many HEIs their current use of digital learning extends simply to the transmission of content rather than building learning capability and independence.

Recommendation: The increased focus on digital learning provision requires multi-level planning in relation to how social mobility will be maintained and advanced at an institutional, department and individual student level. A formal audit and critique of institutional digital learning provision that then informs educators’ short and long-term digital learning and CPD requirements should be conducted. The Education and Training Foundation’s Digital Teaching Professional Framework can be used to kick-start this process. In re-designing learning around blended approaches it is crucial to focus on the importance of task setting and the creation of opportunities for collaborative endeavour within digital learning spaces.

Implication 2 – Emphasise Meta-cognition

The Coronavirus pandemic has encouraged reflection on what the quality of learning offered to HE students actually means. For many institutions this has meant a re-think of core offering and an embracing of the role digital learning can play in promoting learning skills.

Recommendation: Central to the design and delivery of future learning opportunities should be the identification and development of metacognition and self-regulated learning opportunities. Metacognitive strategies are goal-orientated efforts that influence learning behaviours by focussing awareness on thinking, selecting, monitoring and planning strategies. These strategies have been shown to have medium to large effects on a number of academic outcomes at HE level. This is why we believe that pedagogy is more important than curriculum to advance the social mobility agenda.

Implication 3 – Eliminate the Digital Divide

The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the issue of the digital divide in HE; between the haves and have-nots of digital resources in relation to broadband access and the spaces and means to access digital equipment.
Recommendation: In the short-term educators should avoid making assumptions around universal access to digital learning environments that are obstacle free. Provision of blended approaches to learning such as University of Northampton’s active blended learning approach (which espouses students’ active engagement in learning via discussion, experimentation, teamwork with links made between face-to-face, online, and offline learning opportunities) should be trialled. In addition, a review of the presence and effectiveness of cross-sector (e.g. HE and industry) collaborations that may contribute to improvements in students’ use of and access to learning technologies is vitally important.

Implication 4 – Engage and Act Now

Failure to develop a more student-centred and personalised digital learning offer NOW in HE will increase the performance gap and militate against social mobility.
Recommendation: It is crucial that, in terms of social mobility, competence and confidence in independent and autonomous learning should be at the heart of digital learning provision. The current pandemic has highlighted the innovative potential of digital learning in HE. The time to act, given the current state of flux, is now. As such the expected growth in digital learning provision over the coming years should be viewed as the ‘catalyst for bringing about more equitable access to high-quality education.’


The question now for HEIs is how to respond to such a cataclysmic event in a morally purposeful, authentic and principled way? Here, we  stand full square with McKinsey when they argue that, “Issues regarding equity—that is, ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable are met—should be front and centre, both during the closure and after students return to education.” Further, McKinsey has recently set out five steps – Resolve, Resilience, Return, Re-imagine and Reform – to move through and beyond the coronavirus pandemic. The real challenge is contained in the last two of these steps:

  • Re-imagine:leaders think what the “next normal” could be like, and how education systems could re-invent themselves.
  • Reform:educators reconsider education priorities in light of lessons learned.

The four implications outline above are the drivers for any re-imagination of an HEI system that has excellence and equity at its core. Post Covid-19, this is what the “next normal” – the reform should look like. The OECD, has recently observed that – “Change – even rapid change – is part of life; it can be both a source of inequality and an opportunity to eliminate inequities.” That is the possibility that this pandemic has presented us with; let us make that positive choice now when we have, however unwelcome, the opportunity. Particularly as we now have the knowledge to ensure that both equity and social mobility can reliably be achieved.



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