Digital expectation gap

I read with interest ‘An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead’, a report released by the Independent Public Policy Research (IPPR) thinktank earlier this week.  While it is worth noting that the three authors work for Pearson, a company which has well-publicised intentions of moving into the HE space as a provider (building on the publishing and media footprint it already has), and there are a number of Pearson-related examples cited in the report as evidence of this revolution, it does contain some thought-provoking content.

However, the assertion I was most struck by was the statement that, in the post-revolutionary ‘mass universities’, which will have an emphasis on blended and online delivery, ‘the variety of courses and learning opportunities will extend far beyond what is offered at a traditional bricks and mortar college, allowing students to customise and build their learning according to their personal interests and passions over a period of time that suits them best’ (p.57).  Having taught face to face, blended and fully online distance learning courses, and been a distance learner online myself at postgraduate level, I think that potentially invalid assumptions are being made here about there being high and consistent levels of digital literacy among current HE students.  As with other aspects of life, there is a broad spectrum in attitudes, preferences and the extent to which students are (and can be) self-directed learners in an online context.

In audit theory, there is a well-established concept of the ‘expectation gap’, i.e. the difference between what the general public think a financial audit consists of and what it actually consists of.  This led me to consider further, is there a ‘digital expectation gap’, in terms of educators’ views of students’ preferences and skills relating to online and blended learning being significantly different from reality?  There is a small but expanding volume of educational research which suggests that this type of expectation gap does exist.  We cannot assume all our students will adapt to a blended or online model, without support in developing digital literacy and scholarship skills, or that they will indeed want to.  Thus, although the report cautions universities against being overly cautious in the face of potentially revolutionary change, these changes need to cater for the spectrum, otherwise a  number of students will be left out in the snow.



Barber, M., K. Donnelly and M. Rizvi An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead [online].  Available from: (accessed 17 March 2013)


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