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Student Voice: 8 lessons from the 20/21 digital experience survey

Laptop shows a screen with numerous faces of people all together on a virtual call with a coffee cup in the foreground
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Have you got a stake in online learning at your institution? Looking for ways to develop your students’ digital experiences in 2022? Then look no further!  

Here lies a handy wrap-up of Jisc’s Higher Education (HE) and Further Education (FE) student digital insights surveys. Looking at the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. 

Survey background  

The HE and FE student surveys were conducted between October 2020 and April 2021. More than 61,000 students took part, from over 40 UK universities, and 39 colleges.  

Key was to understand students’ experiences of online learning and digital transformation. Whether they were studying remotely, on campus, or through hybrid models.  

The survey also sought to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. How had institutions responded? How did this impact students? And how do institutions need to further adapt and evolve to serve students, under our ‘new normal’?  

The good  

Students were positive about many aspects of their digital learning experiences. Even under unprecedented circumstances caused by the pandemic.  

There were more than 43,000 free text responses, highlighting many areas: 

  • Pace and Flexibility – Students were surprised by the effectiveness of online learning. Recorded content has proven to be popular. It allows students to learn at their own pace, or revisit areas they struggle with 
  • Virtual Interactions – Interactive online sessions received a positive response. Some students said chat functionality within platforms like Teams and Zoom made it easier to actively participate and ask questions in lectures 
  • Regular touch-points – Access to small seminar groups. Ongoing help and support from lecturers. Or even online forums. All played an important part in positively impacting the student experience in 2020/21 
  • Inclusive Learning Plans HE and FE students want to be included in decisions about their online learning. Survey responses showed a significant increase in satisfaction, versus previous years. There is still more to do, but it shows a positive forward trend 

The bad and the ugly  

Students were also asked to outline the negatives of their experiences. Many also identified actions their institutions should take to improve online learning. There were over 47,000 free text responses about the most negative aspects:  

  • Virtual Limitations – A top concern was ‘missing out’ on traditional experiences. The social aspects of studying on campus or interacting with peers and lecturers are hard to replicate online. This is not an easy aspect for institutions to overcome 
  • Access and Connectivity – Technical difficulties were a close second for many students. Poor wifi connections disrupted learning. Remote desktops created friction when trying to access the resources needed. Most disappointing was that almost a third of HE students are still not enabled to access online systems remotely. This dropped to 21% for FE students – accounting for more than one in five students  
  • Navigating Complex Systems – There are too many systems, and they are too difficult to navigate. One HE student suggested making ‘changes to the learning environment so it’s more streamlined and so that every course module follows a similar structure…’ This was echoed in FE. One learner suggested providing ‘ONE integrated, scalable, and sufficiently equipped online learning environment instead of a potpourri of platforms and tools’
  • Mental Health Impact – Fatigue and concentration were noted as negative aspects of digital learning experiences, along with isolation and loneliness. These feelings are to be expected of online learning, but institutions must work to mitigate the impact on students 

The future  

While students will make the return to campus, online learning is here to stay. Tailored experiences, better accessibility, and the lifelong learning agenda all act as drivers. 

So, as we look to the future, there is an expectation that institutions will continue to deliver digitally. Either through blended or fully online models. 

Below are some simple actions you can take to improve this for staff and students alike: 

  • Prioritise wellbeing. Fatigue, isolation, and loneliness are exacerbated under remote learning models. There are many resources available to support your strategy and prioritise wellbeing. Check out Jisc’s podcast Beyond the technology; why wellbeing is so important, a student’s story for more practical tips and insights   
  • Adapt learning for online delivery. Don’t just deliver traditional learning online. It won’t translate well and will negatively impact student learning experiences. You can check out Jisc’s Guide to Digital Inclusion for more resources and tools  
  • Remove technology barriers. Successful digital delivery isn’t just about learning content. You must recreate interactive classroom experiences, online. It’s crucial that students and staff have access to the technologies they need. Make sure the necessary technologies, devices, software and connections are in place  
  • Help foster community. With more students learning remotely, helping them to create connections and feel supported is key. Keep group learning sizes small to improve interaction and engagement. Also consider other support mechanisms you can offer. Check out Jisc’s Student Wellbeing taster course for more inspiration  
  • Streamline Systems. Do not bombard students with multiple, different, and difficult-to-use online platforms. Use tools that are familiar and integrate well with existing systems. Looking for inspiration? Learn about how University College of Estate Management have consolidated their systems and improved user experience   
  • Make accessing knowledge easy. Access to content should be seamless, whether on campus or working remotely. Employing single sign on solutions such as OpenAthens or Shibboleth, through the UK federation, can improve access to support and online materials, and remove barriers to online learning 
  • Consider self-paced learning and assessments. Recording lectures and making these available is a vital step, but it doesn’t end there. You must shift from merely transferring courses online, to transforming teaching, learning and assessment. And that requires investment. Are your leaders on board?  
  • Consider Digital Poverty. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, be aware of the digital divide, and your impact on it. Ensure you are working to close the gap and create inclusive digital learning environments. The surveys showed that students from Black/African/Caribbean backgrounds were more likely to have negative experiences with online learning. Typically, because they couldn’t access a suitable device or wifi connection  

We hope this has been a helpful read! Jisc regularly produces sector reports. To find out what teaching staff thought of their digital experiences in 2020/21 – explore the HE and FE findings 

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