Sarah Knight is Head of Data and Digital Capability at Jisc. 

The changing requirements and changing nature of provision during the pandemic mean that it has never been more crucial to listen to the voices of our students.

Jisc’s digital experience insights surveys are one way to help colleges and universities collect valid, representative and actionable data from their students and staff about the digital environment – and to understand how technologies are used in learning and teaching as well as across the organisation. The report on higher education (there’s also one on further education) is available now.

What students want

Fifteen universities and further education colleges ran our survey with their higher education students from October 2020 to December 2020, at a time when different phases of lockdown were in operation across the UK. Responses from 21,697 higher education students who took part in the surveys provided insights into how they are navigating digital poverty, managing their digital wellbeing, and how well they feel their university or college is supporting them to develop the digital skills they need to participate effectively online.

Despite the unpredictable nature of lockdowns, 51 per cent of students still expected their learning experience to be on campus, although the reality was 81 per cent of students were learning solely online. Most students were studying at home (72 per cent) although substantial numbers were also doing so from student accommodation (32 per cent). Around one in ten were using study spaces on campus.

The challenges

Unsurprisingly students experienced several challenges including poor wifi connection (62 per cent), mobile data costs (22 per cent), and no safe or private space to study (19 per cent). Over a quarter of students had problems accessing organisational online platforms or services and approximately a fifth of students said they needed access to specialist software. These are major concerns given that most students are only studying online. The findings highlight that many students are struggling with issues that are critical to their success as online learners.

Only 36 per cent of students agreed they were given the chance to be involved in decisions about online learning. The intense focus on providing a good learning experience throughout the pandemic and the efforts that universities have gone to in listening to and responding to student needs and concerns is clearly having an impact – but there is still scope for greater improvement. Working in partnership with students to codesign their digital experience will encourage more innovation in curriculum development and a greater alignment with student needs and expectations.

Positive about quality and support

Despite the challenges students are facing, they were positive about the quality of online and digital learning on their course overall. 68 per cent of all respondents rated it as being either “best imaginable”, “excellent” or “good”. And 55 per cent of students said the online learning materials were well designed. High numbers of students had experienced and accessed live and recorded lecture/teaching sessions as well as course materials and notes. Nearly two-thirds had also submitted coursework online. Collaborative and engaging activities have been less well used, despite this being an aspect of learning that the qualitative data shows that students value.

Only about half of the students had experienced online discussions with their lecturers or had feedback on their work at this stage in the academic year. Students highlighted the value of timely feedback on their work in the qualitative responses from the surveys – so this is an area where further enhancements can be made.

Students were positive overall about the support they received for online learning: 62 per cent of all respondents rated it as being either “best imaginable”, “excellent” or “good”. However, the survey identified areas where students need further support and guidance. Only 52 per cent of students said they had received support for learning online, with 42 per cent saying they received guidance about the digital skills they needed for their course. Only a quarter of students said they were offered an assessment of their digital skills and training needs, something that ideally should be in place before students begin their studies. Supporting students to cultivate the skills they need to become effective online learners, is a critical area for development for universities.

In their own words

As part of the survey students were asked what they thought were the most positive and negative aspects of online learning, how they felt the quality of online and digital learning could be improved, and what one thing they felt their universities should do to help them learn effectively online. Their responses provide a valuable checklist for staff to enhance their current practice and to support their students to become more effective online learners:

  • Get the basics right –wifi (on/off campus), access to reliable hardware and software, clear navigation to learning content, timetabling and session scheduling, audio and lighting of online sessions
  • Make learning sessions more interactive (eg quizzes, games, tests), small group tasks so students feel connected to each other, their course and their university
  • Record lessons and make them available soon after delivery to aid personal learning preferences, revision and catch up
  • Train and support lecturers to use online tools in a pedagogically sound and inclusive way
  • Think about the pace of delivery (too fast/too slow) and consider shorter bursts and regular breaks for students
  • Create opportunities to talk to/ask questions of lecturers and fellow students and give timely individual and group support
  • Offer timely feedback on formative and summative assessment activities

Online lectures aren’t the same as on campus lectures, it’s very difficult to stay engaged staring at a screen for 8 hours a day. The best lectures/tutorials are when they are well organised, to the point and cover everything in 45-60 minutes

The way forward

It has been challenging for universities to navigate the changing landscape and meet student expectations. Teaching staff and learning technology teams have worked tirelessly to design and deliver a comparable online curriculum and provide an equivalent experience to the one that students would have been more familiar with on campus. This has included the introduction of new and innovative ways of communicating, learning and teaching. The interpersonal aspects of learning and the wellbeing of students have been harder to support; although some students report having enhanced access to teaching and tutorial staff and find it less daunting to participate in small, online discussions than in large face-to-face lectures.

Now is the time for universities to work in partnership with their students to codesign a world class digital experience – one in which technology is integrated in a pedagogically sound and inclusive way. We need to develop further opportunities for all students to develop the skills they need to thrive through these challenging times, and flourish in the fast-changing digital world.

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