There is no question that the pandemic has changed the way universities around the world deliver teaching and learning. A global study conducted by Instructure, a provider of learning management systems, found that by the summer of 2021, only 21% of students had returned to full face-to-face classes.
The question that remains is whether the changes in higher education are for the better.
As the virus spread across the world, online learning was the only option and universities quickly adopted digital solutions to allow their students to study from home. But if institutions continue to conduct the majority of their lectures online, are students getting a quality education or value for money?
Different learning styles
Perhaps we should look at the question from a different angle. Finally, some students love the flexibility that online learning gives them to study alongside part-time work, childcare, and other commitments.
Likewise, there are students who find learning in large groups intimidating, challenging, or just uninspiring and prefer to retreat to the back row, quietly and unnoticed. The ability to access a course digitally can make a world of difference for students who, for whatever reason, are not successful in face-to-face sessions.
A sizable group of students may prefer not to return to a busy schedule for on-campus classes. On the other hand, without regular in-person sessions, many students fall behind because they haven’t developed the independent study skills they need to stay on course.
Others suffer from a feeling of isolation from their tutors and fellow students, despite successfully managing the academic demands of their studies.
The lack of social contacts is a problem. According to a recent survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute, one in four university students in the UK feels lonely most or all of the time. That’s more than twice as many as one in 10 adults in the general population who say they feel lonely.
As many students take their first steps toward independence, some need more, rather than fewer, opportunities for personal interaction, both academically and socially.
support student needs
Given the diverse circumstances and learning styles of students, perhaps we shouldn’t question whether online learning should survive the pandemic. Instead, we should consider what role technology could play in striking the right balance to best support student needs.
Having a clear understanding of how students learn is a good first step. Some institutions have already taken this route by asking students which aspects of their course they would like to have access to in person and which content they would rather have delivered digitally.
Of course, every student has their own reasons and preferences, but it’s helpful to examine students’ views on digital, in-person, and hybrid approaches to see if there are any trends.
A student might do better if they have the opportunity to study online on Mondays and Wednesdays when caring for elderly relatives or working part-time. Another might feel they get more out of their class by attending all sessions in person.
Flexibility is key to keeping students involved in their university experience. A recent global survey of academics uncovered some interesting solutions to create a better balance for students.
One lecturer suggested restructuring class schedules to include more lectures in a day to reduce the number of trips a student made. Other respondents recommended more interactive face-to-face sessions with question-and-answer activities and group discussions, while providing key course content online.
To meet such a wide range of diverse needs, institutions must carefully manage staffing, use of available learning spaces, and remote access to resources.
Insights from student data
It’s certainly possible to offer students a more personal, less consistent university experience.
Institutions have a wealth of student data that they can use to not only provide more flexibility in study patterns, but also to proactively identify any student difficulties.
By bringing together data from across the university, including academic departments, libraries, housing and support services, and even extracurricular activities when possible, institutions can identify the red flags that could be causing problems for a student.
If a student suddenly stops accessing recorded lectures, limits their physical education classes, or hasn’t visited the library for a while, the IT system could automatically notify their faculty and student union team.
It may not be a cause for concern, but prompting early on to see if the student needs additional support can mean the difference between a young person’s success or failure.
When information is stored centrally and can be shared securely between departments, university staff gain better insight into student needs and can ensure students have a shared experience from application to graduation.
Looking ahead, developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning could transform the way universities support student well-being and academic progress. It might be possible to identify seasons or situations when loneliness or lack of commitment are more likely to occur.
Institutions can use this data to provide personalized support. For example, if the system determines that a top athlete is falling behind at certain times of the year due to more intense training sessions, the university could make changes to allow the athlete to continue competing alongside their studies.
The college years are a time of discovery, learning and personal growth in a young person’s life. It’s time to think about how technological innovations can be used to support students on their individual higher education journey.
Iain Sloan is a Senior Solutions Consultant at Ellucian. He was previously Senior Admissions Officer at Oxford Brookes University, UK.