‘Digital can enhance the post-COVID student experience’

Students are returning to campus, but there’s no turning back from the online shift. Embedding digital in all aspects of learning is more crucial than ever, says Ruth Drysdale

The impact of COVID-19 on the tertiary education sector has been seismic. Over the past six months, we’ve seen a rapid increase in digital teaching and learning, significant upskilling of staff and learners, and a big cultural shift. The pandemic struck suddenly, shook the sector to its core – and its impact is still playing out. While the pace of change may have slowed, it will wax and wane in response to future waves of infection and possible local lockdowns.

Induction 2020

Colleges and universities are continuing to change as they accommodate this unstable landscape. Flexible models are being embraced as institutions seek to deliver high-quality teaching and learning and student experiences that are as robust, supportive and engaging online as they are face-to-face.

This is perhaps most challenging for learners at the start of their journey. The move to college or university is an important one, and freshers’ week – with its social events and endlessly snaking queues to join clubs and bag discount cards – was traditionally a highlight. Social distancing and potential future lockdowns mean a great deal of this must now take place digitally – or at least have the capacity to do so with minimal disruption.

“Now is the time for colleges and universities to look carefully at their digital offer, scrutinising how they support an equitable learning experience online compared to in person”

Support and signposting

As well as moving inductions online, a lot of colleges and universities are now spreading new-starter support over a longer period, kicking off months before learners join and extending through the first term. In digital ‘pre-inductions’, institutions including Derby University and De Montfort University seek to engage with learners before their course starts. This is also an opportunity for organisations to offer clear signposting to support students as they learn how to use college and university systems effectively, whether on-campus or remotely. Many – among them Cardiff University, and Cambridge Regional College – are also offering virtual open days and virtual tours. The aims of all these new digital offers is to enable prospective students to ‘meet’ online and start to build a sense of community and familiarity.

An equitable experience

Now is the time for colleges and universities to look carefully at their digital offer, scrutinising how they support an equitable learning experience online compared to in person. Asking questions and listening to feedback from students is crucial in identifying where improvements can be made. We can’t assume that all learners, once they leave college or university grounds, have a secure place to study, access to the devices they need, and reliable wifi – or that they know how to use all of the different technologies they’re now being asked to use in a way that will maximise their learning experience. In fact, 2019 research from Jisc shows that 18% of 14,525 HE students and 29% of 13,389 FE learners weren’t able to say they have access to reliable wifi.

Data for 2020 will be published in mid-September – and we expect it to evidence that, as a sector, it’s time to move away from the assumption that all learners are digitally enabled and digitally capable. Colleges and universities can then evaluate where they are in the journey towards digital transformation, and see how they can support learners to join them as they make that change.

The year ahead

There’s no question that this is challenging – especially for institutions that were at the start of their digital journey when COVID-19 first hit the UK. The change has been impressive so far, but we’ve also seen emergency measures, introduced at speed, as a ‘good enough’ sticking-plaster solution. Institutions are now looking at how to embed digital for the long term, ensuring they’re transforming their approach, rather than simply translating on-site practices to digital environments.

The results of Jisc’s Digital Experience Insights student survey 2020 will be published in mid-September

You might also like: Jisc’s new initiative to ‘determine a tangible route map for the future’ of HE


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