There is no question that the pandemic has changed the way the world’s higher education institutions deliver teaching and learning. A global study conducted by one learning management system provider, Instructure, found that by summer 2021 only 21% of students had returned to fully in-person learning.
The question that remains is whether the changes to higher education are for the better.
While the virus was sweeping across the globe, online learning was the only option, and universities quickly put digital solutions in place to keep their students learning from home. But if institutions continue to deliver the majority of their lectures online, will students receive a quality education or value for money?
Different learning styles
Perhaps we should be looking at the question from a different angle. After all, some students love the flexibility online learning gives them to study around part-time work, childcare and other commitments.
Equally, there are students who find learning in large groups intimidating, challenging or simply uninspiring and they prefer to retreat to the back row, silent and unnoticed. Being able to access a course digitally can make a world of difference to students who, for whatever reason, do not flourish in face-to-face sessions.
A sizeable group of students might prefer not to go back to a full timetable of on-campus teaching. On the other hand, many students fall behind without regular in-person sessions because they haven’t developed the independent learning skills they need to stay on track.
Others suffer from the feeling of being isolated from their tutors and peers, even while successfully managing the academic demands of their studies.
Lack of social contact is a concern. One in four students at United Kingdom universities feel lonely most or all of the time, according to a survey recently conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute. That’s more than double the one in 10 adults from the general population who say they experience loneliness.
With many students taking their first steps towards independence, some may need more rather than fewer opportunities for in-person interaction, both academically and socially.
Supporting students’ needs
Bearing in mind the wide range of students’ circumstances and learning styles, perhaps we shouldn’t be asking whether online learning should outlive the pandemic. Instead, we should consider what role technology could play in providing the right balance to best support students’ needs.
Having a clear understanding of how students learn is a good first step. Some institutions have already started along this route by asking students which aspects of their course they would like to access in-person, and which content they would prefer delivered digitally.
Naturally, each student has their own reasons and preferences, but it is useful to explore students’ views on digital, face-to-face and hybrid approaches to see whether there are any trends.
One student might do better if they have the option to learn online on Mondays and Wednesdays when they are caring for elderly relatives or working part time. Another might feel they get more from their course when they attend all sessions in person.
Flexibility is the key to keeping students engaged in their university experience. A recent global survey of academics uncovered some interesting solutions to create a better balance for students.
One lecturer suggested looking at restructuring timetables so more lectures are held in one day to reduce the number of trips a student has to make. Other respondents recommended more interactive in-person sessions with question-and-answer activities and group discussions, while delivering key course content online.
To accommodate such a wide range of different needs, institutions will need careful management of staffing, use of available learning spaces and remote access to resources.
Insight from student data
Offering students a more personalised, less uniform university experience is certainly achievable.
Institutions have a wealth of student data they can use, not only to offer greater flexibility in study patterns, but also to be proactive in identifying any difficulties students may be having.
By bringing together data from the entire university, including academic departments, libraries, accommodation and support services, and even extracurricular activities where possible, institutions can identify the red flags that a student might be struggling.
If a student suddenly stops accessing recorded lectures, cuts down on sports sessions or hasn’t visited the library for a while, the IT system could automatically alert their instructors and the student services team.
There may be no cause for concern, but an early prompt to check if the student needs any additional support could make all the difference between a young person thriving or dropping out.
When information is held centrally and can be shared securely across departments, university staff gain greater insight into students’ needs and can ensure students receive a joined-up experience from application to graduation.
Looking ahead, developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning could transform the way universities support students’ well-being and academic progress. It might be possible to identify times of year or situations when there is likely to be a greater incidence of loneliness or lack of engagement.
Institutions can use this data to provide personalised support. For example, if the system spots that an elite athlete is falling behind at specific points of the year due to more intensive training sessions, the university could make alterations so the athlete can continue competing alongside their studies.
The student years are a time of discovery, learning and personal growth in a young person’s life. The moment has come to rethink how innovations in technology can be used to support students through their individual higher education journey.
Iain Sloan is a senior solutions consultant at Ellucian. He was formerly senior admissions officer at Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom.