Image: The Student, 2016

JISC (2021) Student digital experience insights survey 2020/21: Findings from UK higher education and further education (pulse 1: October-December 2020), 8 March 2021

This is another study of student responses to the Covid-19 emergency teaching, as part of my series on Research reports on Covid-19 and emergency remote learning/online learning.

Different levels of lockdown were in operation across the UK and a month-long national lockdown took place from early November to early December 2020. This snapshot of data gathered in the 2020/21 survey was taken at a time when students, teaching staff, universities and colleges were continuing to experience the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Students were asked to respond to the survey based on their experiences over their previous two weeks of study.

There are in fact two studies, one on students in 11 universities and four Further Education colleges (FE) in the UK. FE colleges are somewhat similar to the large Canadian community colleges, polytechnics or CEGEPs. There was a second, similar survey also of 10 FE colleges, although it is not clear if these included the same or different FE colleges from those in the HE study.

Who did the studies?

Jisc (Joint Information Systems Committee) provides UK universities and colleges with shared digital infrastructure and services, such as the Janet Network. It also offers advice on digital technology for education and research. It has been operating for almost 30 years.

Objectives

The surveys seek to support the sector in adapting and responding to the changing situation as a result of COVID–19 policies. This first snapshot of results shows the work of colleges and universities in moving learning online. 

Methodology

Higher education

Between October and December 2020, 21,697 UK higher education (HE) students took part in Jisc’s student digital experience insights survey. This was the first in a series of snapshots of HE institutions’ responses to the changing situation caused by the worldwide COVID–19 pandemic. In total, 15 UK universities and FE colleges took part. Eleven universities were in the higher education survey, plus 4 FE colleges. Of the 15 institutions, 11 were based in England, 1 in Wales, 1 in Scotland and 2 in Northern Ireland. 

Further education

Between October and December 2020, 5,372 learners from UK further education (FE) took part in Jisc’s student digital experience insights survey. This was the first in a series of snapshots of further education and sixth form colleges’ responses to the changing situation caused by the worldwide COVID–19 pandemic. In total 10 UK FE organisations took part; all of these were based in England.

There are 106 universities and 263 FE colleges in total in the UK. In 2019, there were 2,383,000 students in higher education institutions in the UK, so we are looking at a sample of around 1% of all students, and 5-10% of all institutions.

Because no further information on the sample is provided in the reports, it is impossible to know how representative the sample is. This is further complicated by the lack of detail of the size or type of universities or FE colleges in the survey. Therefore it is impossible to determine the reliability or generalisability of the findings. 

Main results

Once again, I am providing my own summary of results. More details and some areas I am not covering will be found in the actual reports.

How many were studying online?

in the HE study, 81% of students were studying fully online, 18% were combining on-campus and online learning, and 1% were studying mainly on campus

In the FE study, 14% were studying fully online, 48% were combining on-campus and online learning, and 38% were studying mainly on campus.

It can be seen that the HE students were much more ‘online’ than the FE students, who were much more ‘on campus’.

Quality of online learning

68% of HE students rated the quality of online digital learning on their course as ‘best imaginable ‘excellent’ or ‘good’; 55% well-designed; 36% engaging/motivating; and 45% at the right level/pace.

68% of FE students rated the quality of online digital learning on their course as ‘best imaginable’, ‘excellent’ or ‘good’; 58% well-designed; 41% engaging/motivating; and 52% at the right level/pace.

62% of HE students also similarly rated the support they received for online learning as ‘best imaginable’, ‘excellent’ or ‘good’

71% of the FE students rated the support they received for online learning as ‘best imaginable’, ‘excellent’ or ‘good’.

Class sizes

In the HE study, 45% experienced classes with more than 50 students.

In the FE study, only 4% experienced classes with more than 50 students; indeed 64% reported classes with less than 17 students.

Where were students studying?

In the HE study, 72% did some of their online learning at home, 32% in student accommodation, and 11% used other spaces on campus.

In the FE study, 80% did some of their online learning at home, 3% in student accommodation, and 13% used other spaces on campus (note that 15% reported they did not do any online study).

Learning activities

In the HE study, in the last two weeks prior to participating in the study, students had carried out the following activities:

  • 86% – live lecture/teaching session
  • 84% – accessed recorded lecture/teaching session
  • 81% – accessed other course materials eg notes, assignments
  • 64% – submitted coursework
  • 52% – online discussion with lecturer
  • 49% – received feedback on their work
  • 45% – interacted with quizzes/games/tests
  • 39% – worked on a group project eg shared report
  • 37% – online research tasks
  • 18% – virtual lab, practical or field work.

In the FE study, in the last two weeks prior to participating in the study, students had carried out the following activities:

  • 66% – accessed other course materials eg notes, assignments
  • 63% – live lecture/teaching session
  • 59% – submitted coursework
  • 56% – online research tasks
  • 49% – received feedback on their work
  • 44% – interacted with quizzes/games/tests
  • 37% – online discussion with lecturer
  • 30% – accessed recorded lecture/teaching session
  • 23% – worked on a group project eg shared report
  • 11% – virtual lab, practical or field work.

As FE students were far less online than HE students in the studies, it is not surprising that the percentages for each activity are lower. The studies do show however that the HE students in particular heavily used live and recorded video lectures.

Both reports noted that collaborative and engaging activities have been less well used, yet this is an aspect of learning that the qualitative data show learners value.

Problems encountered when studying online

In the HE study, 62% had poor wi-fi connection, 29% had problems accessing online platforms/tools; 22% complained about mobile data costs, 15% had no suitable computer/device, and 19% had no safe or private area to work

In the FE study, 36% had poor wi-fi connection, 18% had problems accessing online platforms/tools; 15% complained about mobile data costs, 15% had no suitable computer/device, and 9% had no safe or private area to work.

Because HE students were clearly more ‘online’ than FE students, it is not surprising that they had a higher rate of problems. What is surprising though is the figure of 62% of HE students having poor wi-fi connection in a such a densely populated country as Britain. Given that 72% reported doing their studying at home, this means that most students in HE reported poor wi-fi connections. This could be down to a high proportion of online activity being video lectures, which are heavily demanding on bandwidth.

The learning environment

(Note: it is not clear whether this refers to the learning environment in general or the online learning environment. I am assuming the latter)

In the HE study,

  • 48% agreed that the learning environment was reliable
  • 42% agreed that it was well-designed
  • 45% agreed that it was easy to navigate
  • 70% agreed that it was safe and secure.

In the FE study,

  • 49% agreed that the learning environment was reliable
  • 48% that it was well-designed
  • 53% that it was easy to navigate
  • 69% that it was safe and secure.

Both reports concluded that these responses are all lower than they should be, at a time when online learning is a primary mode of delivery.

Involving students in decisions about online learning

In the HE study, 36% of students agreed they were given the chance to be involved in decisions about online learning (29% disagreed)

In the FE study, 50% of students agreed they were given the chance to be involved in decisions about online learning (11% disagreed).

Most positive aspects of online learning

These applied in most cases to both HE and FE students:

  • access to recordings of lectures for review; and interaction in live online lectures 
  • there are students who prefer online learning because of its flexibility/convenience
  • online small group activities are helpful (HE more than FE)
  • curriculum redesign and online support from instructors.

Most negative aspects of online learning

These applied in most cases to both HE and FE students:

  • online learning is hard and difficult
  • technical issues/lack of access
  • long, non-interactive lectures
  • studying from home
  • well-being and mental health

How to improve online learning

These applied in most cases to both HE and FE students:

  • improve technology (including wi-fi, audio/video)
  • make sessions more interactive
  • make recordings available
  • train and support instructors
  • better paced teaching
  • timely feedback.

My comments

I found these two studies highly frustrating, because of the design/methodology/or the way the studies were reported. There were considerable differences between the two studies in the extent to which students were studying online, with 81% of the HE students studying fully online, but only 14% in the FE study, yet over a quarter of the institutions in the HE study were also FE colleges. Were the FE college results in the HE study stripped out (and possibly included in the FE study), and, if not, how much difference was there in the results between the university students and the FE students in the HE study? (Given that there were 21,000 students altogether in the HE study, it should not have been difficult to do this.)

Despite the very large differences in the two studies about the extent to which students were studying online, and huge differences in class sizes, satisfaction with the quality of online learning was almost identical between the two studies. I find this very surprising, given the differences in exposure to online learning during the fall semester.

Also, I would have liked more background on the differences between FE colleges and universities in their handling of the pandemic. It appears that neither shut down campus operations completely in the fall 2020 semester, compared with Canada, where nearly all post-secondary teaching was fully online. FE colleges – or at least students – seemed to be operating fairly close to normal, with just a little extra online learning, while universities appeared to be mainly, but not entirely, online – but this is mere extrapolation on my part. However this is an important variable when trying to understand students’ responses.

Again, one challenge with all such studies is separating out the social and cultural loss due to campuses being closed, from the dissatisfaction with online learning. As in several other studies, students in the UK seemed much more satisfied with the quality of the online teaching than I expected. What we don’t know from these studies is how much prior experience of online learning the institutions or students had before the emergency response. Was this completely new – in which case the satisfaction rates are remarkable – or were they building on prior experience of online learning?

We also need to know how satisfied students were with campus-based teaching prior to the pandemic. How many students were in large in-person lecture classes, how much interaction and engagement was there in on-campus classes? Without such a base, it is difficult to judge the online response. Certainly the reports’ main recommendations about how to improve online learning might be just as valid for campus-based teaching.

Finally I was really surprised at the high proportion of students (nearly two thirds) who reported poor wi-fi connections. Although this is a problem for a significant minority of students in North America, the proportion is still usually less than a third of all students.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure how much weight to give to these two studies. There are too many unresolved questions for me to have any confidence in the findings. To say I am disappointed would be an understatement, as we desperately need good data on the Covid-19 response.

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