Two new reports from Jisc add to an increasingly clear picture that, while most learners have enjoyed positive online learning experiences during the pandemic, the digital divide has become more entrenched.
The edtech non-profit’s 2020/21 digital experiences insight surveys – one covering further education (FE), the other higher education (HE) – underline the fact that remote learning is riven with obstacles for a significant number of students.
Almost two-thirds (63%) of HE students suffered from problems with poor wifi connections, as did almost half (49%) of their FE counterparts.
Problems accessing online platforms and services were experienced by 30% of HE and 21% of FE students, while struggles with mobile data costs hit 24% of HE and 16% of FE learners.
Additionally, 14% of FE learners said they didn’t have a suitable computer or device on which to undertake their learning, while 12% reported they didn’t have a safe, private area to work.
“Now is the time to learn from our experiences of what worked and what didn’t” – Liam Earney, Jisc
“Technology plays a key role in the government’s levelling up agenda, which aims to improve opportunity and boost livelihoods across the country as we recover from the pandemic,” said Liam Earney, MD of higher education, Jisc.
“A positive collaboration between education, telecommunications, and government is crucial so that no one is digitally excluded as the sector heads towards a blended and flexible future.”
Despite digital divide issues, the survey showed that learners were predominantly satisfied with the quality of online and digital learning; 66% of FE students rated it as ‘best imaginable’, ‘excellent’ or ‘good’, as did 67% of those in HE.
Just over half (51%) of HE students agreed they received support for learning online or away from campus, and 41% had guidance about the digital skills needed for their course.
The FE report underlines students’ appreciation of efforts to help continue their learning in unprecedented circumstances:
“Learners told us about the lengths their lecturers and tutors had gone to in supporting them to learn; creating new and engaging resources, using discussions, quizzes and polls, and replying to individual queries via email. Lecture recordings were well received and helped learners to manage their study around other commitments.”
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“However,” it continues, “not all learners had opportunities to engage in more transformative activities or experience the best that digital approaches can offer.”
The report notes that:
- Online learning is different to face-to-face learning and should be designed specifically with that in mind
- Collaborative activities naturally increase learner engagement and provide vital opportunities to develop key employability skills, such as effective online communication skills and co-operative research/design
- Poor learning design has a negative impact on learners’ wellbeing, on top of any difficulties experienced in accessing the learning and resources
The HE report found that only a third of students felt their concerns were being heard, with barely more (35%) saying that they had been offered the chance to get involved in decisions about online learning.
“It is my hope that, as the dust begins to settle, universities take stock,” said Earney. “Now is the time to learn from our experiences of what worked and what didn’t and give all students the best technologically enhanced university experience possible.”
“The hard work and efforts of staff during the pandemic demonstrates a commitment to providing students with the best learning experience possible. Of course, delivering world-class online and blended learning at scale will require substantial resources, and we know that universities are still dealing with huge challenges and changes – but by listening to our students and staff, we can identify the positive changes seen in universities and global research. If we capitalise on these, the benefits stand to be immeasurable.”