When the higher education sector was ambushed by the pandemic, it responded with lightning speed to push classes online.
While the rapid adoption of virtual learning represented an enormous undertaking, campus shutdowns exposed the sector’s patchy approach to adopting high-quality education technology.
A recent study by Times Higher Education spanning 120 countries revealed that even though students felt online classes had enabled them to work at their own pace, they had also experienced a high level of digital dissatisfaction.
More than half the students surveyed – 52 per cent – indicated they did not enjoy their online learning experience as much as the in-person equivalent.
Three in 10 students felt their ability to concentrate while learning online was worse.
And 45 per cent of students said they did not have access to adequate resources when studying online while 41 per cent indicated their education had been of lower quality than if it had been delivered in person.
Disturbingly, 29 per cent said online learning had negatively affected their mental health and a third thought their employment prospects had been damaged.
The study results were mirrored by a research project by the Federal Government’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).
The TEQSA project Foundations for good practice: The student experience of online learning in Australian higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted a number of issues specific to universities’ virtual offerings.
Challenges included reduced interaction with academic staff and peers, difficulties with information technology; complications with the translation of some subject areas from an internal or face-to-face mode of delivery to online, and student isolation, lack of engagement and reduced motivation.
The TEQSA report highlighted that while students appreciated providers’ efforts to move to online classes, a significant number of students “did not wish to continue with remote study and wished to return to a face-to-face experience as soon as possible.”
The research from both Times Higher Education and TEQSA underscores that the sector must take steps to improve the online student experience if virtual learning is to cement its place in higher education.
Universities do not need to sacrifice quality during online learning. In fact, the opposite may hold true.
The challenge is to understand what universities must do to ensure a more satisfying online learning experience for their students.
It starts with getting the basics right.
Top of the list are improving the timeliness of communication as well as the quality of materials, including recordings as well as reducing the complexity with navigating an online course site.
Understanding students’ needs provides a strong foundation for delivering a first-class online learning experience.
In the absence of opportunities to interact face to face, successful universities have implemented alternative initiatives to gather intelligence about student challenges.
Some, for example, have hosted virtual student panels to talk through the challenges, issues and opportunities associated with studying online.
Such initiatives work particularly well with students from equity groups, who are in the best position to describe their own situation.
It is also the case that superior online experiences are much more than repositories of information for students to access.
They provide a mixture of resources, including readings, notes and possibly recordings of lectures at the same time as having built-in mechanisms to facilitate interaction – between students and teachers as well as among students.
Importantly, while many falsely believe the teacher’s role is diminished in an online setting, the role of the educator is even more important.
Many students have complained that institutions have adopted a ‘set and forget’ online model in which students are left to their own devices to churn through material – with little or no teacher presence.
A view prevailed in some institutions that teaching online was less demanding of an academic’s time. As a consequence, academics were loaded up with extra courses to oversee.
It was a move designed to save thousands of dollars for cash-strapped institutions. It also affected the student experience adversely.
A teacher’s presence plays an extremely important role in building a sense of belonging in an online learning community and bolstering student retention.
It is the very reason why every university needs to take steps to humanize their online experience.
Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer with the Australian Institute of Management WA.