What I would say is that a fairly bifurcated picture is emerging.
On the one hand, we have a group I might call the “want to be theres”:
- They consist largely (but not exclusively) of students studying away from home, and tend to be young(er).
- This is a group that principally wants an in-person experience, and the social learning aspects of that (both in terms of being taught with other students and then informally interaction with other students) are really important.
- The way in which the pandemic has caused an augmentation of that experience through recordings, extra materials or even just notes and slides being posted to the VLE in good time is a welcome bonus that is particularly welcomed by international and disabled students and by others when the pressure is on.
- However, they specifically and quite pointedly dislike synchronous hours of teaching that they can only access online, from a “value” perspective, an isolation perspective and a “why am I here” perspective.
- And they are even more hostile about “hours” of teaching that are now asynchronous tasks or materials that they can only access online (whether via recordings or other self-directed materials).
- Contrary to the cliches, lots of disabled students and commuter students are in this group, and want campuses, teaching and timetables to better facilitate their time on campus rather than the “access” of not having to be there at all.
Then, on the other hand, we have a group I might call the “don’t want to be theres”:
- They consist largely (but not exclusively) of students studying at home, and tend to be old(er).
- This is a group that principally wants a distance learning experience, and the social aspects of HE are less important.
- The way in which the pandemic has enabled a distance learning experience happen for them has been really beneficial, because teaching and learning activities are now better suited to that mode, and because (in England) the student funding system has been accidentally supporting maintenance loans for full time distance learning students for the first time.
- In other words, a lot of students who would otherwise have been distance learning students if loans were there have been pretending to be on-campus, in-attendance students – and for a while now haven’t had to pretend.
- That’s not to say that social aspects of learning are unimportant to this group. They want to build friendships and networks with course mates they can rely on outside of the formal teaching – and need that to be facilitated.
- And they don’t mind a visit to campus now and again – but they want that to be concentred into a full day or two every once in a while, not spread over a week.
- They specifically and quite pointedly dislike hours of teaching that they can only access synchronously in-person, from a flexibility perspective.
- And they are even more hostile about activities that are, in effect, in-person asynchronous like group work.
Three major conclusions.
What’s fascinating about both groups is that neither are a fan of what I see being described as a “blended” approach, particularly where the “blend” is a mixture of online only asynchronous and in-person only synchronous. It’s clear this doesn’t cater properly for either group, and both groups think it’s too much of a nod to the other group.
It’s also not clear that it’s anything other than a messy compromise to try to run a single programme with both sorts of students learning alongside each other all at once. Fundamentally you either want to be there (with support when you’re not) or you don’t (but you’ll be there occasionally). Splitting those students up allows for better designed programmes that sit better in that groove.
Oh – and there is clearly a large group of students who would prefer to be on a properly designed, full-time distance learning degree if only the student funding arrangements supported it. That DfE ministers have continued to hold out on making maintenance loans for this group happen over the past decade or so is a desperate shame.