Six key messages from the 2020 UCISA TEL Survey

Six key messages from the 2020 UCISA TEL Survey

The tenth UCISA Survey of Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) for higher education Report has been published. The 2020 Report offers a longitudinal perspective of TEL developments across the UK higher education sector, drawing on data from previous surveys dating back to 2001. It focuses on TEL provision within universities and other HE providers and the emerging and planned patterns of learning technology usage.

The Survey was completed in March 2020 by 96 out of a possible 155 UK HE institutions, with heads of learning technology invited to reflect on TEL developments since the last survey in 2018. What emerges in the Report is a snapshot of institutional TEL service management prior to the pandemic, and the findings help us to understand the state of readiness of the sector in facing the challenges of the Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) phase.

Here are six headline findings and how they relate to TEL developments at the University of York.

1. Widening participation and inclusion strategies have emerged as key drivers for the development of TEL services

HE providers have a long-standing commitment to the enhancement of the student learning experience through the use of learning technologies. ‘Enhancing the quality of learning and teaching in general’ and ‘Improving student satisfaction e.g. NSS scores’ retain their 2018 positions as the top two driving factors for TEL development, with the former remaining the leading driver for all surveys dating back to 2010.

The 2020 data does though show an increasing emphasis on ‘Widening participation/inclusiveness’ which has moved up from 5th in 2018 to 3rd in 2020 in the list of drivers – with half of all respondents citing their Access/Widening Participation strategy as informing the development of TEL services within their institution.

2. There is now a strong focus on digital accessibility across the sector

The inclusion agenda is supported through the requirements of both the Equality Act (2010)and the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018particularly in relation to digital accessibility.  The 2020 survey data indicates that this regulatory context has had a major impact on institutional practice, with digital accessibility becoming one of the top 7 drivers for TEL development. 

Half of survey respondents reported that they regularly evaluate the Accessibility of learning and teaching resources, and more than one-third of respondents indicated that they had reviewed Digital accessibility tools between 2018 and 2020.  Accessibility was also the most cited challenge facing institutions over the next two to three year, to be addressed through staff development and investment in new tools.  These findings are consistent with the developments that we have seen taking root at York before the Covid-19 lockdown, both in terms of CPD initiatives (e.g.  a ‘show and tell’ on inclusive practice in 2018; leading to the development of  case studies of inclusive practice with a focus on digital accessibility), and in relation to the introduction of new tools and services (e.g. rollout of the TextHelp suite of tools and implementation of Blackboard Ally).

Factors encouraging the use of TEL tools by teaching staff remain the same as they were in 2018 across the sector, with Availability of TEL support staff and Feedback from students the top two factors for the third consecutive Survey.

3. Fully online learning provision has been scaling up – and this development predates the Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) phase

The Covid-19 context and  so-called ‘pivot to online learning’ (WONKHE, 2020) has brought with it many challenges for higher education institutions, not least in terms of how we support students who are working remotely to engage effectively with online teaching and self-study activities. The UCISA 2020 survey data indicates that the sector had built up a fair degree of expertise in supporting online learning prior to the pandemic, with 81% of institutions (n=71) having offered some form of fully online course provision, such as our own York online programmes.  This suggests that a pivot to online learning was already well advanced, with fully online course delivery established across schools/departments having increased from 48% in 2018 to 63% within Pre-92 universities, with 51% of all HE providers supporting this mode of course delivery by March 2020.   34% of institutions (n=32) responding to the survey had a collaborative working arrangement with a commercial partner (e.g. an online programme management company) for this provision – a practice most common amongst Pre-92 universities.

4. Outsourcing of key TEL services continues at pace

Another key development before the lockdown was the transition of HE providers to cloud-hosted Software as a Service (SaaS) models for their learning technology services.  The survey data reveals that outsourcing of TEL services is now common for lecture capture platforms, e-portfolio systems, VLE platforms (supporting the delivery of blended learning courses and fully online courses), digital repositories and media streaming services.

Indeed, the pace of change in TEL service management practices has been rapid over the past two years. Over half of lecture capture services are now outsourced – an increase on the 46% reported in 2018. The VLE market is heading that way too, with the proportion of institutions using cloud-based services for their main VLE (42%) having tripled since 2018, with a corresponding decline in the percentage of institutions opting for ‘on premises’ hosting and management arrangements; in-house VLEs now account for 36% of main institutional VLEs, with the remainder (23%) institutionally managed but hosted by a third-party. We may anticipate this transition to cloud hosting for VLE platforms increasing in the future, with vendors such as Blackboard announcing that they will be withdrawing support for self-managed platforms by 2023 and exclusively focusing development on their SaaS platform.

5. Webinar and virtual classroom platforms are now part of the core TEL tool-set

The 2020 survey data reveals less change in the composition of institutional TEL tool-sets, with VLE, text-matching tools, document sharing and asynchronous communication tools all commonly centrally-supported by institutions, as they were in 2018 (see corresponding blog post on case studies of institutional TEL services). These tools were identified by more than two-thirds of responding institutions as being used in at least 50% of their courses.

However, ‘webinar / virtual classroom tools’ had increased in usage by 2020, with 72% of respondents offering them as part of their centrally supported service – 20% points up compared with 2018. Conferencing tools were therefore well established as part of the core tool-set before the pandemic, no doubt enabling institutions to negotiate immediate changes brought about by the Emergency Remote Teaching phase.

The data also reveals that a new generation of team-based environments has been gaining traction in the UK higher education sector. 58 UK higher education institutions (62%) had established a centrally-supported collaborative tools service (e.g. MS Teams) before the Covid-19 outbreak, and 67% that had reviewed their collaborative tools provision had implemented Office 365 (including Teams) as a result. Indeed, Collaborative tools (e.g. MS Teams) and Learning analytics tools are the top two tools for planned pilots over the next two years.  The growing appeal of collaborative tools was corroborated in a recent Association for Learning Technology survey, which reported that they were ranked as most important by 81% of ALT members, with take-up no doubt increasing as part of the pivot to online teaching, drawing on the lessons learned from implementations before the pandemic, such as our own deployment of Slack to support peer-led research projects.

6. Leading barriers to TEL adoption have focused on staff knowledge and commitment, but will these endure?

A Lack of academic staff knowledge and a Lack of academic staff commitment were reported to be among the top barriers to TEL development, while the Availability of TEL support staff was recorded as the biggest factor encouraging the development of TEL. It will be interesting to see whether these perceived barriers to learning technology usage persist after lockdown. The impact of Covid-19 on the UK HE sector has been profound, with institutions  reviewing their digital provision and making rapid major changes to learning, teaching and assessment practices, as outlined in the QAA’s July 2020 report [ see QAA publication pdf]. 

This has required academic staff to transfer tutorial and supervision sessions which were scheduled for on-campus delivery to a form of online provision and has involved an immersion experience in synchronous teaching techniques and a rapid digital upskilling in the use of conferencing tools such as MS Teams, Blackboard Collaborate and Zoom across the sector. The associated workload issues for instructors has been huge, but in a positive sense may have led to developments in both digital capability – the technical skills involved in delivering online teaching – and digital fluency – the pedagogical skills needed to design in and facilitate technology-mediated learning effectively. We have certainly seen evidence of redesign initiatives in module teaching at York, as recorded in our termly Learning and Teaching Forum events (see corresponding blog post for Autumn Term 2020), with examples of how module leaders at York have increased their use of asynchronous activities in combination with shorter synchronous sessions to provide greater support for independent and group working and allowed for more flexible, active-learning approaches during the synchronous sessions. There have also been new opportunities for more open forms of assessment to be implemented (see this Education Technology Insights blog article for a discussion on future directions for assessment formats).

Arguably, this rapid continuous professional development and learning for instructors has laid the foundations for lasting change in teaching practices, opening up opportunities for innovations with educational technology to take root and to be scaled up quickly across the university. This may help to overcome some of the perceived disciplinary blockers to TEL usage that were reported by institutions in the 2020 survey data – such as lack of subject TEL champions, lack of local management support / encouragement and discipline factors – the top 3 reported reasons for subjects making less extensive use of TEL.

Discussion points from the survey

The impact of the ERT phase on staff knowledge, commitment and skills in using TEL tools for teaching represents one of the many discussion points arising from the 2020 survey. These issues will be addressed in a forthcoming series of video interviews with institutional TEL service leaders, which UCISA’s Digital Education Group will be undertaking to learn more about the impact of the ERT phase on TEL service management. More details on these interviews to follow!

In the meantime, you can find out more about the 2020 survey by accessing the full 2020 UCISA Survey findings by going to:   The Report can be downloaded (pdf format) and there is also a slideshow summarising the key messages.

About the UCISA TEL surveys

The Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association (UCISA) is a member-led professional body for digital practitioners within education. UCISA’s Digital Education Group has been tracking the implementation of learning technologies within the higher education sector through regular surveys, which have been conducted on a biennial cycle since 2001. Previous reports may be accessed here.

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