How has the UK and the world adapted to uni student tech demands post-pandemic?

As most universities return to face-to-face teaching, research shows that students are demanding universities keep up with the latest technology trends. Are higher learning institutes aware of this, and maybe more importantly – can they keep up with the demand or are there more critical factors at play?

The importance of a basic connection and workable device

On a basic level, students need both a stable internet connection and a device to work from. These requirements have been crucial to receiving a good education for over a decade now. Although many educational institutions offer physical devices and internet connections for students who can’t afford technological luxuries at home, these families have suffered throughout the pandemic.

Shocking though it may seem, during this testing time, some universities left their students to deal with the issue of access alone, and weren’t available to guide them through this radical change. ET heard from a current student at Aston University in Birmingham; on the topic of additional support offered during lockdown, he said, “The onus fell heavily on the students to carry out all the necessary procedures, most of which were long-winded and bureaucratic, making it very difficult for some students to obtain the necessary support.”

“The onus fell heavily on the students to carry out all the necessary procedures, most of which were long-winded and bureaucratic, making it very difficult for some students to obtain the necessary support” – student, Aston University

It’s an indication that current university students were not given the help required to make the transition to remote learning. Due to the pandemic, demand required universities to step up their technological access and resources, but many were unable to do so.

UK universities lag behind others in technological trends

Rob Mettler, higher education (HE) digital expert at the global innovation and transformation consultancy PA Consulting, commented: “UK universities are largely behind other organisations in their digital journeys. Whilst many have recognised the need to catch up, most universities are still coming to terms with what they need to do and how they do it. Organisational silos, a lack of historical investment, leadership prioritisation and lack of digital capability all hinder progress.”

“The past 18 months have revealed just how agile universities can be when faced with the need to change” – Rob Mettler, PA Consultancy

Looking at the bright side, he notes that: “The past 18 months have revealed just how agile universities can be when faced with the need to change. Many universities accomplished greater digital transformation in just three weeks than they had achieved over the past three years.”

How are universities dealing with student requirements post-pandemic?

In this new, heavily-digital world, evidence suggests universities are having to become increasingly digital, and potential students prefer universities with cutting-edge technology. In 2012, the undergraduate tech survey from Educause Centre for Applied Research showed that 49% of students would like to see an increase in learning management systems (LMS), 57% would like to see more open educational resources (OER), 46% would like more online videos and 55% more online games; so how are universities faring in 2021, nine years after these initial findings?

“A decade later, people using these resources are far more sophisticated, especially in the last 18 months. Ten years ago, the prospect of a Zoom classroom would’ve been seen as hi-tech and fun, whereas now a breakout room is a must. Attention spans have decreased; bite-size learning is now more effective. More interactive platforms that allow for engagement in different ways is appreciated, and game-based learning is definitely on the rise,” observes Diana Bowman, a professor from the School of Innovation in Society, Arizona.

“Before we think about what the future looks like, we have to take a step back and think about actually getting everybody connected”  Diana Bowman, School of Innovation in Society

Diana emphasises the fact that there is more to the story than keeping up with student expectations. “Before we think about what the future looks like, we have to take a step back and think about actually getting everybody connected… It’s not just about giving wifi access and a computer, it’s also about digital literacy that goes with it to ensure that students have the connection. A student could be 73 or 17, but we need to make sure that they can access high-quality education.” I think it’s fair to say inclusion and accessibility for all is essential.  

A need for an end-to-end educational strategy

Image source: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

Sumit Bhatia, professor of emerging technologies at Ryerson University, Canada, agrees. He thinks that the kind of development the world has seen over the last decade has been significant. But rather than focus on specific types of learning management systems available, the more important question is: “Are we thinking about tech strategy from a holistic perspective?”

“Are we thinking about tech strategy from a holistic perspective?” – Sumit Bhatia, Ryerson University

There’s a huge need “for different types of learners, different types of environments and different points of access”. He makes the important point that university students can include people with disabilities, people who are elderly and working single parents. “There’s a whole spectrum of students out there, and the technological model would ideally cater for everyone’s individual needs. What is required is an ‘end-to-end educational strategy’.

“There’s a whole spectrum of students out there, and the technological model would ideally cater for everyone’s individual needs” – Sumit Bhatia, Ryerson University

“The problem that we encounter when trying to keep up with student expectations and demands is far bigger than this study makes it out to be. Something that we forget when we see results like this is that there is an entire segment of the population that doesn’t have the means to access this type of technology. In an environment when our fees and technological expectations continue to grow, that divide will expand.”

As many students depend on private funds from their families to keep up with these demands, the difference in access is more significant. “A lot of universities will say that we have access to the right machines and equipment for you. But I’ve also been in classrooms and seen the students sit there until midnight because they don’t want to go home; they don’t have access to a machine at home.” Of course, this negatively affects the students’ quality of life.

It’s also important to consider that, “Any change that occurs on a technological level at any academic institution will be done using a phased approach. It will take time to develop teaching and learning strategies that follow the technological trends, and students will have to be patient and understand that universities will naturally be one step behind current trends.”

Creating a holistic experience

This is a human issue. Although IT managers have fared well, they are not working on their own and there’s more work to be done. Sumit Bhatia reminds us to ask vital questions: “What does adaptive learning look like? And how do we reimagine the use of technology to create a more holistic experience for the students?” These are surely more important factors to consider when looking at the advancement of technology in the education sector.

A 'phased' approach is key

Although many universities have adapted well to the changing environment post-pandemic, many still lack minimum requirements such as an internet connection with the required network speed and a device to which it will connect. Yes, student demands are increasing with the fees, and it’s not easy to keep up with the technological trends of the industry, but whole institutions must undertake a phased approach. Only then will the changes be feasible and adaptable on a long-term basis. I have had the pleasure of speaking to a few experts and thought leaders on this subject and I must conclude that, with more than half the world without an internet connection, accessibility and inclusion of the whole student body is a more pressing factor for the sector to address.

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