Ministers’ bias towards face-to-face risks throttling online learning at birth

The DfE’s bootcamp expectation of 85 per cent face-to-face teaching shows a bias towards traditional methods that can only hold the sector back, writes Mark Dawe

The DfE’s bootcamp expectation of 85 per cent face-to-face teaching shows a bias towards traditional methods that can only hold the sector back, writes Mark Dawe

28 Mar 2023, 5:00

Recently, ChatGPT and I wrote in these pages about the incredible benefits of online learning in driving up efficiency, quality and success in education. We were finally on the cusp of understanding how technology can enhance learning and skills!

My optimism came crashing down just a week later when the DfE increased the requirement for face-to-face teaching to 85 per cent of learning in their latest bootcamp tender.

Online learning helps positively transform lives. I have had the privilege of seeing it over and over again. It is therefore deeply worrying that in the face of a general upturn in embracing technology, the DfE and its regulators seem to be set on returning to ‘old trusted ways of working’, limiting opportunities for many of our communities.

At times, it feels like those making the decisions are doing everything they can to stifle innovation in the delivery of education and skills. I am sure this can’t be their deliberate intention, but if we are not careful the government will inadvertently create a learning agenda where online learning is throttled at birth – making us less competitive in the long run. 

When I was at Cambridge University three decades ago, we had 85 per cent face-to- face learning time: 15 hours of lectures per week with 200+ students and virtually no interaction. Most times, a professor read a chapter from a book they’d written ten years previously – if they bothered to turn up at all! Genuine live interactive learning took place the other 15 per cent of the time, in our tutorials. We can do much better than this through a sensible blend of resources and live interaction. 

So let’s get interactive with a little quiz. Which would you prefer?

A. Being taught by someone who could vary daily from ‘Requires Improvement’ to ‘Outstanding’ depending on the kind of week they’re having or the lottery of what teacher you get.


B. Being taught by the outstanding teacher in the country or a genuine expert in the subject who you’d never find (or afford) in the classroom

A. Having to attend a session at a fixed time with no option to catch up or repeat.


B. Attending a session at a time that is convenient to you, chunking it up, repeating it and revisiting it throughout your course.

A. Someone teaching you online with a PowerPoint and their face in the bottom left corner.


B. World-class resources delivered by world-class teachers every single lesson, developed by education experts who are continually reviewing their relevance and constantly tweaking based on student feedback and performance.

A. Sitting through a lecture and not knowing whether one piece of information has lodged in your brain.


B. Having a carefully crafted set of live formative assessments embedded in your lecture to ensure that you have understood what you are being taught and can apply it.

A. A manually maintained record of your progress and understanding.


B. A live record of your learning, understanding and progress, available to you and those supporting you.

It’s B all the way, of course. Sure, there are difficulties to overcome such as the very real challenge of digital exclusion. But sitting in a classroom or on-screen at a set time every week also excludes millions with complex lives from learning new skills.

It’s time for the DfE to accept that and to change their attitude; online delivery is as good as, if not better than, much face-to-face delivery and they should be encouraging development of online resource development, not reducing it. 

More importantly, the whole FE regulatory system needs to get round a table and set out what good looks like in the online world, so that they can have confidence in commissioning online delivery. 

The DfE claim to care about outcomes, but obsess about inputs. Ofsted care about intent, implement and impact, so let’s allow them to focus on that and nothing else.  The Treasury want more skills and more efficiency, so allow us to offer them solutions that give them that.

The potential is there, and we can’t afford for ministers to keep chickening out of the big calls to make education more effective and inclusive.

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  1. Bob Harrison

    Great piece Mark…and it’s important that we keep up the pressure on DfE and challenge their prejudice and lack of understanding about the potential of technology to engage and empower learners and extend and enhance learning

    • jack hiett

      Most of the learners we train want a connected, class based training experience and not an online one. Many of them can’t afford the software, hardware nor have a study or office to work from at home. A class based learning experince also develops soft skills that most employers want. An online one does not, retention rates and learner satisfaction are much lower. We saw this first hand when we were forced to deliver online during covid. This insight seems to be missing from the article – probably because it’s written by someone who does not have the experience and learnings from doing both and comparing results.