There’s no denying that students have had a tough time so far this year in their academic study, despite universities’ arduous planning over the summer to convert courses for online and blended delivery.
While the immediate demands of continuing to deliver online learning and teaching are significant, the next academic year is in sight – and while there are likely to be restrictions in some form, there is the heartening possibility of the resumption of elements of face to face learning and teaching.
There seems to be a consensus among university leaders of learning and teaching that while the explosion in online and blended learning of the past year didn’t come about in exactly the way the sector would have chosen, there’s now little sense in reverting back to the way things were before.
The challenge now is to work through what aspects of online and blended delivery should be retained in the short term, what are the areas for longer term strategic development, and what can be gratefully consigned to the dustbin of history.
The expectation gap II
To help inform these discussions, Wonkhe and Pearson collaborated in December 2020 on a survey of students exploring their academic experience in the autumn term and their hopes for the future of learning and teaching. Our sample of 3,389 respondents was generated primarily through promotion of the survey in partnership with Wonkhe SU subscribing students’ unions in nine universities, of which eight were located in England and one in Wales. We achieved a good mix of students studying at different levels and from different educational backgrounds.
Despite many students hoping for a blend of online and face to face learning in semester one, 46 per cent reported that their course had been entirely online. 33 per cent said their course had been primarily online with some face to face, and a further 14 per cent said the term had started with some face to face but had moved online.
We also asked students how they were spending their time, asking them to report hours spent on different activities in the last week in which they had scheduled contact time. Just over a third (37 per cent) said they had 6-10 hours of timetabled activity, and just over a quarter (26 per cent) said they had 3-5 hours per week of timetabled activity. 19 per cent had more than ten hours of timetabled activity. 17 per cent said they had less than two hours a week of scheduled activity but the vast majority of these students were postgraduates.
Time spent in independent learning was also highly variable, with 21 per cent reporting fewer than five hours a week spent in independent learning, a quarter reporting 5-10 hours a week, 11 per cent reporting 11-15 hours per week, 16 per cent reporting 16-20 hours per week and 27 per cent reporting more than 20 hours per week.
There would usually be variability in timetabled hours and independent learning hours between levels and subjects of study – and you’d expect there to be an inverse relationship between hours spent in timetabled activity and those spent in independent study. Nonetheless, it’s still concerning that 46 per cent of surveyed students reported doing less than 11 hours of independent learning in a week.
In our Expectation Gap survey of students in June 2020, when we presented students with a scenario of limited face to face teaching in September, 71 per cent said that in such a scenario they would struggle with motivation to learn and keeping up interest. You can’t help but wonder whether lower levels of student motivation might be affecting independent learning hours. It’s also worth noting that even with, say, ten hours of timetabled activity, supplemented with 20 hours of independent study, there’ll still be a lot of time hanging heavily on students’ hands.
Under these circumstances, the quality of learning and teaching becomes absolutely central to students’ sense of their experience of university. And our sense is that most of the students we surveyed are coping with the adaptation required during the Covid-19 pandemic, helped by good provision of resources and engaging and responsive lecturers – but that the real potential of online learning to enrich students’ learning experience has yet to be seized.
Students’ hopes for the future
What university leaders may consider heartening and daunting in equal measure is that there are very few elements of online learning and teaching that the students we surveyed would not like to see continue after the pandemic.
Over 80 per cent in each case agreed that they would like to see recorded lectures, provision of all core learning materials on the VLE or equivalent, and online access to support services such as wellbeing and careers, and 79 per cent said they would like to continue online tutorials or check-ins with tutors.
The qualitative responses elaborated further, with students saying they particularly valued live streamed or recorded lectures that had been broken down into smaller parts, with tasks interspersed. Some students explicitly mentioned that they liked the flexibility of virtual learning, working at their own pace and not having to commute to campus.
72 per cent said they would welcome online tests that allow them to check their learning, and 69 per cent said they would like to see online discussion forums continue. 58 per cent even said they would like to continue with online seminars.
The only areas where students were more equivocal were in provision of virtual placements and internships, where 33 per cent said they would like to see these continue, and in virtual labs, where only 11 per cent said they would like these to continue. However, 33 per cent said they would like virtual labs to be provided in addition to physical labs.
Quality of learning and teaching
Despite the positive endorsement of many aspects of online and blended learning, these findings should not be taken as an absolute endorsement of the quality of the academic experience as it’s currently being delivered.
Our sense from the survey is that students understand – up to a point – the challenges facing universities and teaching staff and genuinely appreciate ongoing efforts to support them. Students were particularly warm about communications with teaching staff, with 82 per cent agreeing that tutors are responsive when they need them.
In June, when we asked what students were most concerned about in a scenario of limited face to face teaching, restricted access to feedback and support from lecturers came top of the list, with 27 per cent of respondents making it their first choice. The recent survey findings suggest that universities have worked hard to allay these concerns.
However, when we asked straight out whether students thought their academic experience had been of sufficiently good quality during the autumn term, only 40 per cent said yes. This increased to 56 per cent for those who had reported their course had been delivered through a mixture of face to face and online.
You might argue that students don’t have a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the concept of “quality” to be able to answer that question meaningfully. So we also asked about aspects of course delivery.
32 per cent agreed and 41 per cent somewhat agreed that teaching is intellectually stimulating. 31 per cent agreed and 38 per cent somewhat agreed that their course is clear and well organised. This suggests that for the most part the basics are in place in terms of teaching and curriculum. That said, improving the organisation and signposting of courses in the VLE could be a relatively easy way for universities to further support their students in this area.
In our original student expectations survey in June we asked students an open question about how online learning could be improved for them. The area that was mentioned by most students (over 17 per cent of respondents) was access to technology and resources. In the latest survey, 40 per cent agreed and 34 per cent somewhat agreed that they could easily access the resources they need. This suggests that access to resources has improved since the first lockdown.
Where there’s room for further investigation is in providing a consistently engaging online learning experience and bringing curriculum content to life for students. Just over half (53 per cent) agreed or somewhat agreed that there is a consistent approach to teaching across all modules. Only 41 per cent agreed or somewhat agreed that online learning activities are varied and engaging. Concerningly, only 21 per cent agreed and 35 per cent somewhat agreed that they had had sufficient teaching and learning to adequately prepare for course assessments.
40 per cent said they had adequate opportunities for interaction with other students on the course. This could speak to a lack of facilitation of peer interaction, which is an essential element of effective online learning – or it could simply acknowledge that even with facilitated interaction, this does not entirely meet students’ need for face to face contact. But when we asked what, taking into account Covid-19 restrictions, could make the difference to the experience, the majority – 63 per cent – said more opportunities for interactions with other students, and 57 per cent selected more contact time with tutors. In June, when we asked students how a scenario of limited face to face teaching would impact them personally, 65 per cent predicted that they would struggle to stay connected with peers and the university.
Only 35 per cent said they have regular indicators about how they are performing on the course. In a context where students are more isolated and have fewer opportunities to compare notes with peers or talk informally to lecturers, building opportunities for self-assessment of progress can be especially helpful to give students academic confidence and self-efficacy, especially given the finding on students’ sense of their own preparedness for formal assessment. 36 per cent said that more frequent assessments and progress reviews would make a difference to their experience.
Some respondents said they were learning new skills as a result of learning online, such as time management, or confidence in speaking. When we asked specifically about the skills students are building, most reported that they are confident or quite confident that they are building independent learning skills (75 per cent), digital learning skills (68 per cent) and information literacy skills (67 per cent). Areas students are less likely to say they are confident or quite confident are academic writing (61 per cent), project and time management (60 per cent) and confidence to engage with groups (57 per cent).
Yet even though these numbers are reasonably strong, half of the students we surveyed agree their university should be doing more to support them to develop academic writing (58 per cent), digital learning skills (56 per cent), confidence to engage with groups (56 per cent) and project and time management (55 per cent). Only slightly less than half wanted more help with information literacy (48 per cent) and independent learning (47 per cent).
Preparing for a flexible future
What we take from the findings is that among the students we surveyed, the fundamentals are generally in place. Teaching staff seem to be (mostly) engaging and responsive, and though some students flagged specific frustrations about learning remotely, most reported good access to learning resources.
Some of the findings are an inevitable consequence of Covid-19 restrictions, with students frustrated at missing out on practical experiences, lab time and field work, and it can be difficult to separate out students’ sadness at the limited campus experience and other deprivations of the pandemic from the perceived deficits in their learning environment.
But there is scope for further thinking and development in how courses could be structured to make the most of the potential for online learning. Students are clearly open to retaining the majority of elements of online delivery in some form, but they don’t always know which modes of delivery will best support their learning.
Where educators aspire to take forward a rich flexible learning environment that blends face to face and online elements, there’s an opportunity to make some of the latent aspects of learning more explicit through the course design. For example, better user experience (UX) design of VLEs could vastly improve signposting and help set expectations around learning. With flexible learning, educators could be much less constrained by scheduled contact hours, and more able to create curriculum structures and processes that enable students to progress in their learning.
Interaction between students need not only take place in the classroom but can be supplemented by online discussion and forums. Curriculum content can be broken down into more manageable chunks that can be digested digitally, and the classroom used for more engaging interactive tasks and activities.
Academic skills development can be baked explicitly into learning activities with defined tasks designed to be completed during independent learning time. Crucially, students can be encouraged and supported to develop as independent learners through use of formative self-assessment. And all this could be supported with remote check-ins with tutors and online access to wellbeing, careers and academic support services.
Different universities – and different courses – will have different priorities for what needs to be implemented as soon as possible, and what would benefit from more measured development. Planning how to fund and operationalise these changes, weighing up front investment against longer term gains, will be crucial, as will engaging with students throughout the process.
But whatever the steps on the road, it’s clear that, now students have recognised the benefits of a more flexible approach, the direction of travel in meeting students expectations for the future of learning and teaching will be towards a more purposefully flexible approach that draws on the best of both online and face to face learning.
This article is published in association with Pearson. Click here to download the full research findings.