Most students pleased with their digital learning – Survey

Nearly seven in 10 students surveyed rate the quality of online and digital learning as either ‘best imaginable’, ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ (68% of both further and higher education students).

But the snapshot findings of the Jisc survey of 27,069 higher and further education students in the United Kingdom also found that areas such as well-being, mental health and staff digital skills need more attention.

Sarah Knight, Jisc’s head of data and digital capability, said: “We hope this data pulse helps universities and colleges see clearly where students are benefiting, and where they could be better supported.”

Between October and December 2020, 21,697 higher education students and 5,372 further education students from 11 universities and four further education colleges took part in Jisc’s digital experience insights student survey.

The surveys seek to support the sector in adapting and responding to the changing situation as a result of COVID-19 policies.

The surveys will continue to run until 30 April 2021, but this first snapshot of results shows the swift work of colleges and universities in moving learning online has been predominantly well received by students.

Among those surveyed, 81% were studying online, 72% of them from home.

Both higher education and further education students surveyed noted the huge benefits of flexible learning, with lecture recordings proving helpful for note-taking and scheduling learning around other aspects of life. Some students enjoy the comfort and convenience of studying at home, as well as feeling more in control.

One student said: “Learning online (ironically) has made it easier to get support from staff. They’re more likely to encourage us to talk to them and it is a little easier than having to find them physically on campus.”

Students enjoyed a range of different online activities and were positive about being able to access lecture recordings and participate live online.

Analysis of free text responses in the survey was particularly revealing and highlighted how being able to watch sessions again helped students to study in ways that better met their learning needs, improved their understanding and encouraged further independent study.

For instance, recordings enabled them to catch up if they missed the live session, manage the pace and take notes. They also made it easier for students for whom English is not a first language to hear and understand the lecture.

Live sessions were more interactive and engaging, allowing for questions and timely responses.

However, there was frustration when valuable resources were not made available in a timely way.

Some of the more engaging activities were less well used and there are opportunities to embed activities like the use of small group discussions for peer support and collaboration, quizzes or polls, and online research tasks into curriculum design, the survey found.

Negative aspects

Identifying negative aspects of remote learning, students reported challenges such as technical issues, difficulty concentrating, unsuitable study environments, isolation, and well-being and mental health issues.

Common problems experienced included poor Wi-Fi connections (62%), lack of access to online platforms or services (29%), mobile data costs (21%), no safe private area to work (19%) and no suitable computer device (15%).

Online learning is difficult and can be overwhelming. Students report receiving too much work and expectations of a larger volume of independent work than usual but without the benefit of timely support.

Some lectures were too long, insufficient breaks were provided, and the delivery mode was intense, causing “fatigue and mental health concerns”.

Interactions in live sessions can be difficult if the class size is large and if the students don’t know other students, the survey found.

To tackle these challenges, learners want colleges and universities to:

• Get the basics right – this includes Wi-Fi (on campus and elsewhere), reliable hardware and software, clear navigation to learning content, timetabling and session scheduling, audio and lighting of online sessions.

• Make learning sessions more interactive.

• 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 or too slow) and consider shorter bursts with regular breaks.

• Create opportunities to talk to or ask questions of lecturers and fellow learners and give timely individual and group support.

• Improve communication – reminders of when sessions were going to start, when assignments are due, and an accessible list of frequently asked questions (FAQs).

The survey says understanding the extent of the issues for any university or college is a vital first step in formulating an informed strategic plan and resource management to address these. “This is where having your own data is extremely valuable,” it says.

Students as co-designers

The report advocates engaging students as “co-designers of their learning experience”, advising that engaging in conversations with students will result in a deeper understanding of the issues and perhaps yield solutions not thought of before.

Knight said Jisc’s digital experience insights surveys are designed to “support colleges and universities to understand and improve the digital experience of their students, and to provide baseline and benchmarking data to inform digital strategies across the sector”.

“We hope this data pulse helps universities and colleges see clearly where students are benefiting, and where they could be better supported,” she said.