In 2020, Curio conducted interviews with students to hear from them and let them explain their thoughts and feelings to the recent campus accommodation closures, frustrations at university cost, and the challenges of learning remotely. In this article, we’ve explored some of the key themes emerging from these discussions and what universities can do to respond. If you’re interested in finding out more, you can also listen to the podcast via the link below.
Students are frustrated at the ways in which changes have been made at the last moment.
This means that they could not plan for ways in which online education could fit around their professional and personal lives. Much of this has to do with living arrangements, casual work, but also parenting and carer responsibilities. Students have been left demanding more from their institutions given the recent changes in returning to campus. Research has shown that the more amenable a programme is (by way of it being offered in a blended fashion), as well as a significant lead time and preparation for students to adjust in commencing a degree is one of the highest predictors of retention and satisfaction (Weerasinghe & Fernando, 2017; Styron Jn, 2010; Madgett & Bélanger, 2008). Many of these factors also include considerations such as financial security and savings; which is also front of mind for many of today’s students.
If they knew what exactly distance learning entailed at their institution, students would feel much more secure in structuring how online study could fit into their work and life routines.
Some have candidly stated it would have meant that they defer their studies completely, in favour of a gap year, or to find casual employment until a return to campus was feasible. Social connectedness also features heavily in the literature around student attitudes, motivation to complete their degrees, and enthusiasm to continue their study, perhaps into postgraduate education. Mature students with memories of their early student days have said that they would not have started university if they knew the campus experience was not on offer.
Institutions should be mindful of how they are representing their offerings both through internal communications and the media.
There is a current expression of sympathy from students to others that are currently inside university halls and residences. Much of this discussion is tied into the debate on student fees, and the questions of “value for money”, given a perception of the relatively high cost of higher education. Universities should be highlighting modular aspects of their programmes and the flexibility this affords, including the impact of deferred or delayed practicums or placement aspects, as well as having open and honest conversations about the value of live and synchronous connection with top academic talent and world-class scholars.
This should be front-of-mind for all students commencing at a new institution, but is even more paramount now, and is testament to a campaign to remind students that “only the mode has changed”. The quality of the educational offering remains the same. Curio’s interviews with students indicate that there is a widespread view that many students did not sign up for a distance education degree. For the first time, most are questioning the cost of their higher education, and the long-term value of their degree.
For many students, there is a pervasive sense of a mismatch between the cost and what is currently being delivered.
Students show respect for university efforts to provide value in other ways, where there is a concerted attempt to engage and involve them. University administration should increasingly invest in rapid programmes to engage their cohorts, involve students in the conversation of their online experience, seek feedback, and show responsiveness to any issues raised.
Now is the time for listening, so this will involve greater integration of an institution’s educational technologists, and e-learning units within these organisations. There has been a greater relevance for all learning designers in this moment, but they should be consulted to discuss strategies to provide whole-of-school support and training. Much of this could be live professional development, templates for VLEs, pdf guides, ad-hoc and one-one-one chat support for bespoke requests from faculty. Awareness of the learning analytics behind a VLE or LMS interface is vital to diagnose and triage online student behaviours.
Institutions need to involve library and academic skills to develop new resources and materials for their student body.
Students report that they perceive the true value of the degree being the campus experience and access to campus facilities. Now that these have been restricted, students feel that they have to re-learn how to be students in a self-directed way, with minimal support being offered by their home institutions to assist with this adjustment. Institutions must extend the scope of the support they offer. Much of this should be about new ways of learning, attention management, and healthy online habits. By extension, training and support should be given to both learners and educators alike on how to maintain positive and harmonious online behaviours, engaging with each other with politeness, courtesy and purpose.
Students also report feeling grief and sadness at the loss of their campus and college atmosphere, and a lacking sense of community. The student experience has also been compromised in being unable to attend social events and meet new peers. This is described – almost universally – as a feeling of ‘missing out’. Collaboration with the student representative or union to assist in community-building and online campus spirit should be a pressing priority, if not already underway.
Institutions should think about rapidly uplifting their platforms and delivery technologies, ensuring that staff are supported, trained and ready to deliver a smooth and equitable online experience.
Care should nevertheless be taken to preserve as much synchronous delivery as possible. Students overwhelming prefer live teaching and express satisfaction and a greater sense of “value for money” when classes are delivered at a regular time, with multiple weekly sessions, supported with high-quality and up-to-date materials. Of course, within these sessions, educators should allow time for students to get the chance to talk to peers directly, and with their lecturers and teachers in real-time.
This requires universities to create more opportunities to connect students with educators and to have frank and honest discussions about the realities of this new mode of learning. Students want to see adjusted curricula and tasks to fit the virtual medium, and there is a demand for students for greater responsiveness and efficiency from educators in dealing with queries via email, and improved availability. Educators should be mindful of the increased workload, inbox-management and information control to large groups of disparate learners. Many of these skills are unfamiliar or require some support to integrate new workflows, and an awareness of technology to help support greater efficiency.
University administrators and leaders should have a keen awareness of capacity, workload and the realities of managing large cohorts of learners, and have conduits of communication with their faculty about the realities of this new way of working.
Students are stating a preference for more intimate classes with direct access to a sole educator as a point-of-contact. The university response here is to think about new ways of programme design and structure, class sizes, and student learning journeys across many years. It also has a significant impact on the resourcing of academic personnel concerning online student-to-staff ratios and faculty capacity to meet these configurations.
It’s vital to consult with academic staff around how teaching should occur, share best practices, and how protocols can be updated to best assist to provide them with the most appropriate toolkit to navigate the virtual classroom. Many of these choices will become a competitive edge and should be considered in terms of how “unique” this offering given other rival institution’s branded pedagogies and claims for virtual offering quality. Simply, what sets your institution apart, and what is your point of difference, now the campus is not in use?
The great accelerator of COVID -19 and the transition to virtual delivery has asked some uncomfortable questions around how agile some of our sector processes and traditions really are.
Higher educator administrators have been aware of many of these pressing problems for some time. Teaching and learning are once-again in the strategic forefront, and it is mindful now to think about the nexus of policies, practice and people to help shape the next stage of student and institutional growth.
UK institutions need to be proactive in the ways in which their degrees and programmes must meet the moment, as well as how well their faculty are prepared for online delivery. For post-pandemic recovery, for sustainable growth and future scale, satisfied and engaged staff, universities need to keep the student voice front-and-centre of decision making.
Through our content series ‘Putting the “human” into online, Curio is exploring how we can engage and collaborate closely with students to re-imaging the campus of tomorrow and rapidly convert courses online whilst enabling staff to deliver effectively. If you’re interested in discussing any of these themes, please get in touch or sign-up to our mailing list to receive the latest insights from the Curio team straight to your inbox. You can also listen to our latest podcast via the link below.
Madgett, P. J., & Bélanger, C. H. (2008). First University Experience and Student Retention Factors. Canadian Journal of higher education, 38(3), 77-96
Styron Jr, R. (2010). Student satisfaction and persistence: Factors vital to student retention. Research in Higher Education Journal, 6, 1.
Weerasinghe, I. S., & Fernando, R. L. (2017). Students’ satisfaction in higher education. American Journal of Educational Research, 5(5), 533-539.
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