As any university student, lecturer or tutor can attest, the pandemic has turned learning and teaching upside down. So it’s important we understand what happens for students when their learning shifts online with little to no warning.
Since 2020, there’s been a growing body of important research into the impact of online learning for educators. But the student voice, which is essential to informing good design and facilitation of online learning, has been largely unexamined.
Our Student Online Learning Experiences (SOLE) research project aims to rectify this and give voice to those who are, arguably, at the heart of the COVID-19 education crisis.
The study uses data from nearly 1000 survey responses from students across all eight New Zealand universities. Through a combination of online questionnaires, individual and focus group interviews, we explored their experiences of online learning during the pandemic in 2020.
Challenges and benefits
Students are not a homogeneous group and online learning is not the same for everyone.
Our research shows that, even in so-called normal times, students face multiple challenges, such as access to technology and online resources, financial hardship, family responsibilities and challenging study environments. The pandemic has exacerbated these challenges.
A lot of my family members got [made] redundant, and they lost their house. There were 11 people staying in my house. I couldn’t study. I was also working at the same time. I had to pick up more shifts to help. Working more hours and trying to study on top of that was hard […] My house was always loud […] it was just hard for me.
Among the challenges, however, there were some benefits. More than half the students acknowledged not having to travel and having the flexibility to learn at their own pace and place was positive.
Being able to cut out travel time has given me pretty much three hours of extra study time in a day. The flexibility has enabled me to fit [study] around my daily life. It reduced stress and anxiety. I feel more in control of the work that I do. I definitely work better when I feel like I have to take charge of my own learning.
They also appreciated “being able to access learning materials at any time and the ability to pause and continue” at their own pace. Students also reported they were able to “balance the children, household and study much more effectively”.
Support and communication key
Though many students felt less motivated and less focused, they became more used to online learning. They discovered they could leverage the good aspects of remote learning when they had the right support or knew where to get help, such as financial assistance, extensions, and disability support.
Some students found online learning took them a lot longer to process and engage with.
When it comes to posting something online, I like to make it perfect. Check my grammar, check my punctuation, and see if it makes sense. It’s like [a] mini assignment […] And then a tiny post might take forever for me to write, whereas in class we just have to say it.
However, most students also said regular updates and clear communication were key to helping them learn online by reducing the sense of isolation and distance.
It was good to see students/lecturers talking about their daily life before the online live lecture starts. This gave a sense of “interaction” rather than being talked at in campus lectures where I usually felt a bit of distance from lecturers.
Open-book versus closed-book
Our study also highlighted the need to rethink university assessment practices.
In the face of ongoing demands of family, work and lockdown life, many students found it challenging to sit an exam at a specified time.
They preferred time-based assessments (in which students complete an open-book exam or another type of assessment task within a specified time frame), rather than online exams at a fixed time.
One respondent questioned whether universities were “assessing students in a way that’s actually effective and beneficial for their learning”.
Asked what they would like to see continued in future course design and teaching, a majority preferred open-book exams “that assess the application of knowledge as opposed to a stressful closed-book memory test”.
Such an approach might also help minimise problems with cheating and academic integrity in the online environment.
What do students say we should do?
Fundamentally, we need to get to know and consult with the students we work with and understand their needs and circumstances. We need to provide choice and negotiate learning possibilities, including such things as:
design more flexible and inclusive learning experiences (for example, allow students to choose from a selection of times to complete assessments)
develop student skills and competency online, provide video tutorials, allow time to experiment and have fun, give feedback and encouragement along the way
establish opportunities for students to give and receive self, peer and teacher feedback
foster social learning and social presence online by nurturing relationships and creating opportunities for group interaction
provide opportunities to participate in class or online workshops (post-pandemic), maximising the benefits of blended learning
inform students about the full range of support available and clearly communicate priorities for learning.
Better design, better learning
As pandemic conditions become the new normal, educators need to move beyond Zoom, Teams and video lectures to create inclusive learning environments. Using the Universal Design for Learning framework would be a good place to start.
Equity and diversity should be front of mind when we transition to blended, flexible or online modes of study. As one of our respondents aptly put it, we must
[…] recognise inequities and students who may have all kinds of difficulties accessing online learning, who may have physical disabilities that make online learning difficult, who may be having to take care of people.
Above all, we must listen more closely to those whose lives and learning are most affected by these changes — students.
You can read the full SOLE report here.