Philippa Hardman is VP Learning at Aula.

For educators, student engagement has been at once the most pleasant surprise, and the biggest challenge, of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our research with Wonkhe on the experience of academic staff and staff supporting learning and teaching found that for some, the shift to online learning and teaching has prompted greater student ownership of their learning, better attendance at scheduled teaching time, and more focused engagement in independent and peer learning.

For these academics, technology has been an enabler, in some cases enabling more engagement with lecturers and peers compared with face to face teaching. Recorded lectures and dynamic digital content are allowing students to engage at their own pace and in their own time.

An increase in curated learning resources made available online, and the use of the flipped classroom model have encouraged students to arrive at sessions prepared and take part in interactive discussion, especially through chat boxes, which create a path to engagement for quieter or less confident students. Changes to mode and timing of assessment – for example, weekly shorter, formative tests – have encouraged deep learning throughout modules, rather than a panicked rush at the end.

But for others, the experience of teaching to rows of black boxes, with a lack of student interaction in teaching sessions, and little evidence of student engagement, has caused frustration and anxiety.

A lack of a sense of connection with students, and concerns about the loss of a student learning community comes through strongly in the findings, with nearly three quarters (72.9 per cent) of teaching academics saying that the area in which they most felt they needed additional support was developing a sense of community among students. Only 46.9 per cent agree that they have been able to maintain an adequate level of connection and communication with students during Covid-19.

This quote from one respondent is characteristic of the very high numbers of respondents to our survey who cited barriers to building student community in online teaching:

It’s quite difficult to build connections with students, particularly ones you’ve never previously met face to face. My first year tutees are very reluctant to turn on their camera or mic in group tutorials and mostly interact with me via the chat function in Teams. It’s quite isolating for me and stops them building the connections with each other that are so important in terms of peer support.

The very mixed response of students to learning and teaching online also comes through the survey findings, with 55.4 per cent of teaching staff and 52.6 per cent of staff supporting teaching agreeing that students have mostly responded well to online and blended learning during Covid-19. The digital divide has also been a perennial issue for students and teaching staff, with difficulties with connectivity and access to technology a prevailing theme.

But there is also strong agreement – 70.5 per cent for teachers and 80.2 per cent among staff supporting teaching – that student expectations of digitally-enabled learning will increase in the long term as a result of Covid-19. The clear implication of this is that a return to previous models of learning and teaching are unlikely to be sustainable, or desirable.

Best of both

At a recent Wonkhe/Aula private round table discussion to discuss the findings of the research, one senior leader made the astute point that before Covid-19 hit, the learning and teaching environment didn’t work for every student – it is just that everyone had got used to that being the case. The switch to an almost fully online model flipped some of those disadvantages, with benefits for some students, but not others.

The question now is whether it’s possible to rebuild the learning and teaching environment in a way that mobilises the best of face to face and online, and that creates the greatest degree of engagement and inclusion for the largest number of students possible. Given that student engagement is a key predictor of other student outcomes, especially retention, progression and achievement, it should be the overriding goal in designing the shape of the post-Covid learning environment.

Our research suggests that university staff are, in the main, up for the challenge. At both individual and institutional level it’s clear that, in respondents’ views, the experience of learning and teaching during the pandemic has increased proficiency with using digital technologies in learning and teaching, awareness of the range of tools available, confidence in the value of digital technologies to enable learning and teaching, and willingness to innovate and experiment with new technologies.

When asked about their one great hope for learning and teaching post-Covid respondents painted a picture of a “hybrid” learning environment grounded in on-campus and face to face learning, but in which technology is mobilised in the interests of widening participation and inclusion, to build student community, to enrich the learning environment with a more diverse range of tools and resources, and to enable responsiveness to student needs.

Respondents were also clear that the post-Covid learning landscape should be led by pedagogy, not technology, with multiple references to fostering active learning, reforms to assessment – especially banishing timed exams – more staff-student interaction and student peer interaction, and more imaginative delivery of curricula.

Change at pace and scale

All this comes with caveats, of course. The survey brought to light the very steep learning curve academic staff have been on over the past year, with less than a quarter (23.1 per cent) of teaching staff able to rate their proficiency in digitally-enabled learning and teaching before the Covid-19 pandemic above three on a one to five scale.

The scale of the change that teaching staff have had to cope with has also been enormous, with the majority reporting significant changes to course structure, learning resources, assessment and assignments, as well as institution-level change to policies, guidance, staff development, and academic support for students. Many cited late or changing government and regulatory guidance as an additional source of stress.

For many staff, the additional time required to develop content for online delivery has been particularly significant, especially when considered against a backdrop of childcare, homeschooling, and other responsibilities. 63.1 per cent of teaching staff and 65.7 per cent of staff supporting teaching agreed that it has been a real struggle to manage the demands of teaching or supporting teaching alongside other commitments. This comes as no surprise; speaking with hundreds of educators across the sector, we know that, on average, it will take 80 hours to transform a module from face to face delivery with lectures and seminars to high quality online or blended delivery.

This quote from one respondent in response to our question about barriers to things working well is illustrative:

Not having time (re-)allocated within my workload to redesign my teaching and undertake training to support teaching and learning. The level of administrative duties remained and remain unrealistic. This and in the context of additional caring responsibilities has been extremely challenging.

Among those supporting teaching and learning, there is some scepticism about the degree of necessary expertise within their institutions, with only 40.1 per cent in agreement that they are confident there are sufficient skills and expertise in digitally-enabled learning in their institution to prepare for the future.

While many teaching staff made use of institution-provided resources and training to improve their teaching skills during Covid-19, by far the most significant source of advice and support selected by 72.5 per cent of respondents was informal advice from colleagues, friends and family. And only 36 per cent of teaching staff agreed they were satisfied with the level of support received from their institution to deliver teaching during Covid-19.

Building a hybrid learning and teaching environment

There are two key conclusions that we draw from this research: one relating to post-Covid learning and teaching provision and the other to the environment that is provided for staff delivering and supporting learning and teaching.

The first is the value of purposeful, evidence-informed learning design in which active, community-first learning is intentionally integrated into the learning environment. Covid-19 has shown the extraordinary value of learning community and peer interaction by demonstrating what is lost in student engagement when it disappears.

But it’s also clear that reverting to a world in which it is taken for granted that face to face teaching delivers student community falls short of the hope to build a richer, more accessible, more inclusive learning environment for all students. Technology can aid in creating learning community and a sense of connection for students. At Coventry University 78 per cent of students reported feeling part of a community on Aula, compared to the 41 per cent sector benchmark from the Jisc digital experience insights survey.

Technology can be an enabler of learning community, facilitating the asynchronous sharing and discussion of learning resources, consistency of communication between staff and students, and remote accessibility. But, as the respondents to our survey have shown, this works best when community, inclusion, and a rich and diverse learning experience are the pedagogic goals, and learning is designed accordingly, with technology as the facilitator rather than the objective.

As one respondent put it when asked about their hopes for learning and teaching post-Covid:

That we enter a new era of inclusive, personalised, and engaged learning with students, adopting the spectrum of digitally enabled learning allowing all students to achieve to the best of their abilities.

Our second reflection, drawing on the insight of the senior leaders we convened to discuss the research findings, is that universities will need to consider how they can better support staff to enable the transition to a more hybrid learning environment over the long term.

The most committed, enthusiastic innovators that exist within every university will undoubtedly manage, but for pedagogical change to happen at scale, universities must invest strategically in the support mechanisms that aid the transition.

One senior leader suggested that a balance needs to be struck between “pace and patience”, allowing teaching and professional staff the space and flexibility to reflect on their experience and learning, and continue to try new things in ways that do not feel excessively high-stakes over a longer period of time.

Moving forward from Covid-19, then, will involve redesign of the learning environment through facilitation of changes to course and programme curricula and pedagogy, and the judicious use of digital technology to enable and enhance student community and engagement.

But this also means redesigning the teaching environment so that teaching and professional staff are given the trust, access to expertise and support, and flexibility, to make the most of the lessons of the pandemic.

This quote from a respondent to the survey sums up the potential for making a real difference to students and teaching staff alike:

It’s a window of opportunity to be necessarily creative and radical, and rethink teaching and learning outside of usual constraints. It’s potentially exciting and revolutionary. I don’t want teaching and learning to be digitised versions of what went before. I want them to make use of pedagogical research and technological potential to improve education for all.

This article is published in association with Aula. Download the full findings of the Wonkhe/Aula survey here. Join Wonkhe and Aula on Tuesday 23 March for a free event to discuss the findings. Find out more and register here

2 responses to “Educators’ experience of digitally-enabled learning and teaching during Covid-19

  1. These results chime very much with what I have been witnessing. As someone who has been using Blended Learning for many years, I was strongly encouraged by colleagues response to it. I see it as a game changer for the sector, and the norm for Higher Education going forward. But it must be adequately resourced, additional time allocated to workload models, it needs a change of mindset among colleagues, and we must provide the further training necessary to optimise the use of Blended Learning for staff and students. Universities need a high level of technical credit. And remember, Blended Learning does not mean no face-to-face.

    1. I would agree with much of the enthusiasm evident in the article, and the potential that is identified. However, I would also argue that the importance of the technical affordances of the learning environment [platform?] are perhaps overplayed vis-a-vis the need for comprehensive, evidenced and validated learning design to ground the pedagogy. More than three decades of research continue to highlight the importance of learning design as the key driver of effective (and sadly ineffective) digitally-mediated learning experiences. As digital tools, platforms and technologies have come and gone, the primacy of learning design has remained a strong theme in the literature. So, for me the really big question that all HE institutions exploring the greater adopting of blended experiences is not which digital learning environment to invest in, but rather what is the learning framework / learning design approach that will underpin our learners’ experience, and which learning environments provide the content, tools functions and behaviours that will enable us to implement it. Get this mapping wrong and there is a real risk of limited return on significant cultural change and broader investment.

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