Where next for digital learning?

A year on from the big online pivot, Julie Swain reflects on what we've learned about digital delivery - and where it could go next.

Julie Swain is Partnership Manager, UK and International Partnerships at the University of Plymouth

The last 12 months has been one of the steepest learning curves within the sector, with digital technologies playing a pivotal role in the successful delivery of higher education worldwide.

However, in planning for the forthcoming academic year in September 2021, we need to stop, collaborate and listen.

Key questions that need asking regarding digital technologies across the sector include: What are the key lessons learned? What has worked well?

What have our students and staff told us about their digital experience and what can we do to further provide a seamless transition for our existing and prospective students?

We need to come together as a sector and share good practice to build on what has been learned to support our students and staff going forward.

Digital “make do”

There is a mythical assumption that “digital capital” includes digital learning skills. Our students are seen as “digital natives” but we cannot just make those assumptions or that they are digital learners. As Bond and Phippen reported this is a largely unhelpful term given broadly without true understanding or meaning, and merely labels students due to their birth year.

Whilst an argument might be presented that all students are engaged with social media – yes, we know the majority of the population have Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat Twitter accounts – the pandemic has highlighted this doesn’t necessarily mean they have digital learning skills.

This time last year, Zoom, Teams and such tools were rarely used within the sector. Some of us were early adopters of the technology especially around the distance learning and Transnational Education arena but nonetheless, it was not our daily delivery tool. It was not our key channel in how we communicated with our students.

For many technology was and still is a barrier to learning, yet overnight we switched into digital educators and digital learners. This move is something that normally has taken years of planning.

Digital poverty is one of the major issues that has shocked the sector. There was an underlying assumption “access to technology “ was a prerequisite to modern society with everyone having the internet anytime, anywhere supporting this notion of digital natives. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that this is just not the case. The numerous stories we have heard about students and staff not being able to connect, unstable WiFi at the most awkward and pivotal of times and sadly an assumption that all households have access to endless technology.

We have all heard of students with access to a household device which has to be shared amongst siblings, or family members with “daily time allocations” set aside like a timetable, so everyone gets a turn. Reliance had been on the ability to “connect” through campus technology and to use laptops on loan from libraries and many working day in day out physically in libraries and learning spaces to study as they just don’t have the same digital resources within the home.

Space has proven to be a major issue. There were assumptions that students and staff had “study spaces” at home where they could shut off and dedicate themselves to learning. Again that is just not the case for many and it is not uncommon to be “inside someone’s spare room or even bedroom “.

All of those students and staff we see perched on a dining room table or kitchen worktop doing their utmost with distractions of the appliances in the background – how we miss the library and learning spaces our institutions rightly prioritised to allow us the “space” to learn. For staff the office space is a distant dream for many. In addition, we have to respect privacy in the home.

There is lots of discussion in the sector about “cameras on” “cameras off”, with some embarrassing situations that have emerged “live” as not everyone in the household is aware cameras are on. Staff are often delivering to black screens with mics off, just talking, delivering and doing their utmost to make learning interactive innovative for their students. This has not only been a learning curve to use the technology but also delivering through the screen is a whole new world.

The digital move has had impacts. Pressure and stress have increased when mental health and wellbeing, in particular loneliness has been reported to have increased by some 50% throughout the pandemic. And that is not even considering the mental health of our staff who have been “launched” into digital education overnight which for many has posed so much challenge. How are institutions supporting staff?

I applaud you all for adapting overnight to deliver high quality, innovative content – yet recognise for many this has caused additional challenge and stress over the past 12 months. We need to plan further support and training. Digital developers have supported and taught us so much but we now need time to reflect and rethink lessons learned, asking how we might further enhance practice based on our feedback.

Time to think and plan differently

We are educators – digital education is not going to leave us and “blended” will become part of the norm. IT departments have worked tirelessly to enable tools and systems so we can all work “business as usual”, but ultimately they cannot solve the ongoing WiFi issues for some students and staff who live in remote areas with intermittent access.

They are continually building and maintaining our digital estate, which over the past year has become our life line – nevertheless we need further support from government to work with wifi suppliers to get superfast fibre broadband to all locations across the UK to make this happen.

It’s time to “learn from the blend” – we need to make sure our students are “digitally ready to learn” belonging to the digital learning world. Key pillars of action to support staff and students need to focus on:

  • Digital poverty
  • Digital Learning Spaces
  • Mental Health Support
  • Digital Learning Skills

Importantly we need to listen to our students. This year has been a challenge for many learning online with little time to upskill, and assumptions that all students have digital learning skills. As we now know, that is not the case – so again I applaud all students for their rapid digital skills development, resilience, flexibility and drive to keep engaging in such difficult times.

We need to be planning for transitions for new students, those studying at different levels and adapt our practice based on student voice. We need to embed D=digital learning skills within the curriculum at the start of the academic year and deploy support to help with digital poverty. Being upfront and honest to our learners at the application stage about the technologies required, to help identify gaps and provide scaffolded support.

Ultimately we need to stop, collaborate and listen. We can’t do this in silos, and we need to work together to get this right for the community and remind ourselves about the passion and enthusiasm our students have for their subjects and our world leading expert staff who have become digital educators overnight.

8 responses to “Where next for digital learning?

  1. I am pleased to read your point under digital ‘make do’. It’s timely to remember that whilst young people seem to be rooted in the digital world that doesn’t mean they want, are geared up, or expect to learn solely in a digital space. Bert van der Zwaan remarked in ‘Higher Education in 2040’ that despite the high density of iPhones and laptops on the Hong Kong underground, an Asian university education is ‘characterised by having campuses’ and that people ‘especially in Asian cultures, attach great importance to there being a visible relation between teacher and student’. As you’ve indicated, the challenge now is to build momentum with the sharing and embedding of good practice across the sector and to avoid wheel reinvention where possible.

  2. Jan, yes, UK’s The Open University, and others around the world, went through the technical and social issues of distance education decades ago. Australian universities have been offering online and blended learning, but did not promote it strongly out of fear of damaging their brand. The need now is to train up staff to teach this way and work though the resulting structural changes. https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2021/04/online-learning-with-well-trained.html

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