Higher education is going into a digital sphere it will never go back from.
For a long time, many students had a hard time accessing digital spaces within universities, but since Covid-19 struck, it’s been increasingly high on students’ – and universities’ – agendas to make sure everyone has the equipment, the support, and the resource they need to engage.
We’re finally addressing the fact that the amount of time learners spend in a lecture theatre is actually very small compared to the work they do at home using technology. On top of that, students want a more sustainable approach; rather than buying lots of books, many prefer to read on their devices. Digital learning is not only pushing the sector to be more accessible and more available, it’s also pushing innovation in the ways we teach and engage.
On a personal level, I know that digital technology can help students, building confidence in those who have felt excluded from traditional learning environments. My parents both came to this country from Ghana, and my mum raised me and three siblings on her own in south-east London.
I saw how hard she worked to make sure we got a good education. When my sister got into university, that was a first for my family. Then my sister got a laptop, and that was another first. I started to see how education could unlock opportunities.
I worked hard to show my parents the sacrifices they made were worth it – and that got me to the University of Bristol. It was tough at the start. All students have to adjust when they go to university, but there’s an additional impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I had never experienced that sort of environment and it was intimidating.
When I got to university, the environment was a lot less diverse than I was used to. I didn’t see people that looked like me, and I felt that everything about me was new to other people. That made me look at my identity in a way that I never really had before.
To help with my anxiety in my first year at university, I relied a lot on being able to watch my lectures back on replay. University buildings didn’t feel like they were made for me, not only because I come from a disadvantaged background, but also because I’m a black woman, facing all the loaded micro-aggressions and prejudices that come with that.
On campus, the confidence I normally had disappeared. I couldn’t speak up without feeling out of place or worrying I’d said something stupid, and that didn’t change until I was able to connect with tutors and students via social media on more neutral terms.
I had questions about the experiences of women, of people of colour, of people of faith – and those conversations weren’t normalised in the lecture theatres. I felt that the only way I could be myself and ask the questions I wanted to ask without becoming a specimen was by engaging outside the lecture theatre on my own terms. That’s why digital learning is important. For me, it increased access and opportunity.
Covid-19 has left some universities on the brink of bankruptcy, but investment in digital technology is important not only for delivery, but also for provision. A lot of students can’t access digital education because they don’t have the equipment, the internet connection, or a suitable environment to be able to interact in a way that works for them. That’s a massive challenge, and solving it requires universities getting to know their students to better understand their needs and how to help them.
Universities have an opportunity right now to think about student partnership. Listening to students is so important – and most have grown up with technology. Even as a graduate, I don’t remember a time before social media, a time when I couldn’t go into a group chat to speak to my course mates. If the higher education sector wants to engage with students, this is the time to balance in-person teaching with digital media. That’s really exciting and I think a lot can come out of it.
But the sector has needed to do this for a while. When I was undergraduate education officer at the University of Bristol Students’ Union, we were looking at students’ digital experiences and sharing a Jisc survey to see how we could improve them. That was so valuable; when students feel heard, you get rich data about what they want and what they need. By acting on that, embedding the right digital teaching and learning approaches, universities can engage all students.
Technology is the only way universities can go forward. That’s the reality. We’re never going back from digital, and students – with their lived experiences – are at the forefront of that change. Although the pandemic has given us such tragedy, it has also given us space to do things differently and think creatively. We can do a whole lot of good if we take this opportunity to innovate with compassion and inclusivity.
Let’s deliver education in a way that’s flexible, mindful and truly inclusive, using advanced technologies. Anything digital can be personal – and being able to personalise my experiences of education, using technology to learn on my own terms, was incredibly empowering. That sort of education can change lives, and that’s a message of hope in this time of anxiety.