Universities went digital to survive, but is it now here to stay?
The pandemic caused a lot of upheaval in the higher education sector. As everything went digital, controversy started to rumble.
Students queried whether they would get the same value for money knowing lectures and seminars would be taken from their bedroom. And lecturers were sceptical and anxious about whether they could deliver the same standard of education.
Now, nearly two years on, universities are no longer in reactive mode and can start to take stock of what worked and what didn’t. And it’s clear there’s still a lot universities can retain and build on.
In October of last year, Pearson Education gathered findings from a bunch of surveys conducted throughout 2021 to get a full picture of how both students and educators felt about digital learning.
The pros: inclusive, flexible, time and cost efficient
A major advantage that students and educators highlighted was how digital learning can boost inclusivity. Whether it’s part-time carers, international students, or people with long-term medical conditions, they all have obstacles that can stop them from learning in person. Digital learning, however, breaks down those barriers.
Recorded lectures allow people to catch up in their own time and juggle their education effectively with part time jobs and other commitments.
There’s also agreement that online learning hugely benefits those who suffer from anxiety when they have to physically turn up for a lecture. They’re much calmer and productive in an environment they can control and are familiar with.
It’s also a better set up for them to contribute. Whereas they wouldn’t be confident raising their hand in class, the chat function on Teams or Zoom is much less exposing.
Eliminating commuting to and from university has its practical advantages too – anything that’s going to lessen the financial strain and afford people more time is never going to be a bad thing.
The cons: lonely, unsociable, unsustainable
But the digital experience meant long periods of isolation and many students believe it had an impact on their motivation. Studying from home or in halls for long periods can be disruptive, and young people who have just left school might not have the self-discipline to engage with back-to-back online lessons.
It also prevents them from accessing specialist kit or spaces they might need – those departments that rely on practical assessment, like the arts and medical schools, weren’t able to deliver those critical hours of face-to-face guidance.
Students also pointed to the assumption that because of their age they should all be digital whizz kids. But young people still have very differing levels of technical experience. And even if they’re proficient, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be excellent digital learners.
They also weren’t getting that well-rounded university experience, which means they can’t develop those soft skills like they usually could. Things like communication, social skills, and teamwork are just as important for young people to develop prior to going into their profession. But with so much less physical interaction, those skills get left behind.
Educators were keen to stress the impact of greater workloads when working remotely. They had to manage prerecording seminars, running live sessions, marking assessments, and much more – keeping that up permanently just wouldn’t be sustainable. Another reason why a blended model is much more appealing long-term.
And finally, the perception that digital learning doesn’t give students value for money still persists. In which case, there needs to be education and proof around the quality of delivery, regardless of whether it’s in person or online. Otherwise, students will continue to be sceptical of too many online lessons popping up in their schedule.
The future is about refining the right blend
Overall, students and educators are both in agreement – a blended model of online and face-to-face learning is very much here to stay.
In the heat of the pandemic, it was just about coping, and under the circumstances, universities and colleges did an excellent job getting everything online and keeping education moving.
Now these organisations are finally out of reactive mode, they can really start to develop those elements that elevated the student experience, made it more flexible, and unlocked more opportunities for those who haven’t always had them.
Published date: 25th January 2022
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