The COVID-crisis has accelerated investment in digital learning from something of an after-thought (in some institutions, at least) to a business-critical priority, almost overnight. While many universities were overwhelmed with the speed with which they had to pivot, they were able to affect admirable levels of emergency change and deliver courses remotely.
Now, after several months of preparation, HE institutions have a unique opportunity to consider whether a more hybrid approach to learning might offer their students a long-term solution with greater flexibility that ultimately improves retention, satisfaction and enrolment growth without the need for new buildings. Rather than a stopgap, high-quality hybrid learning experiences might be a better solution for meeting current and future student needs.
Is the heart of learning digital?
A recent study by Pearson and Wonkhe explored the student experience during COVID-19, where nearly 60% of students cited receiving “high-quality online teaching” as the main priority for their next term, followed by a “consistent approach to teaching across modules”. When asked about digital learning improvements, students’ top suggestions were, “more interactive learning” and, “more opportunities to ask questions”. Plainly, students are asking for a higher-quality, active and community-centred learning experience.
Universities that embrace the full potential of intentional learning design fused into the digital offering will enable students to build stronger relationships with peers and academics, and develop a greater sense of ownership of their learning experience. Programmes will remain academically rigorous while lecturers benefit from greater opportunities to interact with their students in new ways.
Institutions must think beyond the combination of the LMS with Microsoft Teams or Zoom. To move to a high-quality hybrid learning experience that meets students’ needs and makes them want to stay at the institution, these experiences and platforms must be carefully designed for the educational context in which they exist. Simply shifting a face-to-face module to a combination of tools without expert design for hybrid learning will not deliver the outcomes students or universities are hoping for.
From stopgap to sophisticated digital experience
For a generation used to the standards set by social media, there are understandable concerns that entering university will be a disjointed technological experience this year, with poor access to tutors or a lack of shared experiences. Whilst universities are doing much to combat this, the digital experience is just as important as in-person. So, students will be benchmarking their digital learning experience against the intuitiveness and connectedness of their social media and banking apps. A suitable digital learning platform needs to offer comparable capabilities and communication elements while being designed for education, with content management, academic feedback, and a technical architecture and security set-up to meet the needs of public institutions.
Creating a digital community
Even when receiving regular emails, it’s easy to feel isolated when studying from home. The campus experience that so many students eagerly awaited shouldn’t be taken away because of the pandemic. Instead, universities should transfer it to the digital world through the learning experience itself.
For digital learning to be embedded in the futures of HE institutions, it’s essential that its use is not only encouraged, but systematised, by academics. A community-first approach can also support teaching staff, who may be rapidly learning and adjusting to new virtual systems and approaches after years of traditional face-to-face, one-to-many teaching.
Future-proof technology and learning
Investment in digital learning has become critical to universities, both in extending their reach and embracing a more diverse student body. By developing the digital learning model now, universities will be best positioned to switch back and forth between campus and digital learning without significant disruption, and able to tailor approaches to the needs of a digital-first learning generation.
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