This year’s intake of undergraduates to universities around the UK are already changing the world. It is the first time where, for most of the first year, their experiences will be fuelled by often remote, digitally-driven courses rather than the typical immersion into a physical campus.
Some of the UK’s higher education institutions had some form of digitally-driven learning already in place before Covid hit, but the pandemic has rapidly accelerated this trend as all students saw their courses turn remote in lockdown.
Societal change, including issues such as inclusion, diversity, tech-orientated lifestyles and of course now social distancing are framing the need for higher education learning experiences that are more dynamic and flexible. Still, for an entirely digital (at least initially) year group, it raises more issues for institutions in terms of how they can replicate such an important life experience in digital form.
With many students already weighing up the value for money that university courses deliver, there is also growing pressure on higher educational institutions to ensure that they achieve a more consistent standard of course delivery across different faculties. One of the notable features of National Student Surveys is the large variance in scores given to different courses within a single institution.
Many students will wish to experience all the benefits of campus education. But in future they are almost certain to grade universities at least partly on the learning technology they offer along with course make-up and physical facilities. The ways that universities demonstrate their abilities to create learning communities will be crucial in the year ahead.
Recent research by Wonkhe and Pearson asked 3,500 students in England and Wales what universities need to do to meet expectations for next term, and found 59 per cent chose “high quality online teaching” as their most important factor.
To achieve a high score for digital-learning experiences, universities face a series of challenges. A critical problem is the lack of confidence many academics feel in knowing what good digital education looks like.
Many have experimented with technologies generally known as Learning Management Systems, while others are starting to use mass-market video tech such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, which we have all become so familiar with in recent months.
Neither offer an ideal or seamless experience to a student cohort used to social platforms offering increasingly sophisticated interactions that are mobile friendly and mix instant messaging, workflows and commentary, as well as document sharing — think of Slack or WhatsApp, for example.
Academics will be faced with challenges of learning how to deliver their planned content and student interactions — so institutions must consider carefully how to embed digital learning technologies into the lives of their teams. Clunky systems can consume a huge amount of an academic’s time simply understanding how to use them.
It’s clear that students, used to high-grade, modern technology experiences such as social media or e-commerce, will have high expectations. So universities need to focus on this user experience both for students, as well as for academics.
They also need to consider that all-important community element, making the digital experience first and foremost a seamless one allowing students to connect with their peers.
Investment in digital learning has become of strategic importance to universities, and already there are strong indications that rather than spoiling the university experience, students will see digital learning experiences as an essential addition.
The current generation of students who become used to hybrid university experiences may also end up better equipped for professional life, where technology is integrated into the everyday aspects of work and management.
If current predictions are correct, and universities craft their digital learning ecosystem well, this group of graduates could be better prepared to enter the world of work than any other before them.
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