Student experiences of online learning in COVID-times

By Cheryl Brown, Ashwini Datt, Dianne Forbes, Dilani Gedera, Maggie Hartnett, Ciara Alfonso and Zahra Mohamed

It is unsurprising that over the past few months discussions amongst colleagues in the tertiary sector have focused on the disruption of COVID in our academic lives. There is no doubt that this has been a stressful year and has impacted on our wellness, sense of security (and belongingness) at our institutions, workload and work-life balance. In our various roles we have grappled with emergency remote learning and teaching (ERLT) in our own lives, those of our colleagues and our students. However, despite everyone’s best endeavors, it is somewhat ironic that it is those most directly affected – the students- whose voices are generally missing from conversations in the academy.

Recognising this problem,  a group of colleagues in Aotearoa, New Zealand came together to explore Students Online Learning Experiences (SOLE) during the pandemic.  Our personal experiences as teachers, academic developers, educational designers, researchers, and for some of us also parents, gave us lived experiences of how students were grappling with learning.  Our research is not institutionally focused. Rather we have collaborated with student associations to survey students from all eight New Zealand universities (yielding 1144 responses), complemented by over 22 online focus groups.  This research project has enabled us to connect with students from NZ universities both on and offshore, gaining an understanding of their concerns, hopes and experiences. Whilst we are still in the preliminary phase of analysis, what is clear to us, as we plan for 2021, is that we must ensure that students’ voices are adequately represented in our responses and recovery.

The SOLE Team: Dianne Forbes, Maggie Hartnett, Dilani Gedera, Ashwini Datt and Cheryl Brown

What struck us early on, was how diverse students’ learning approaches and experiences were. While for some, it may have felt lonely, frustrating and unmotivating (as they would rather have been on campus with their cohort), for others it was flexible and liberating and modelled the way they thought university should ideally be structured. This isn’t a reflection on online learning design but more a comment about the lack of choice. As Brandon Bayne, from the University of  North Carolina notes, “nobody signed up for this”,  it’s not like we had a choice.

Whilst young people are viewed as digitally savvy and always connected, digital equality still proved to be an issue in our context. Aside from lack of access (to suitable devices for learning and the internet), knowing how to use technology personally (frequently for social and entertainment purposes) doesn’t equate to knowing how to be an online learner.  Another issue is students’ wellness and wellbeing. This was particularly foregrounded by the New Zealand Union of Students Associations (NZUSA) and Te Mana Akonga rapid research conducted to assess the impact of COVID on students’ lives.

For students in their first year of study (whether this was their first year of university, a qualification or even a new university or course), many only experienced 4 weeks of being “at university” before lockdown levels took them away from campus. This was not nearly enough time to form the social connections they needed to support their learning networks with peers in their courses. Added to this were additional unforeseen responsibilities (for example child and family care). It is therefore unsurprising that many students felt isolated in their learning. We believe blended/ online learning is as much social-emotional as it is cognitive. Teaching should not be solely focused on the dissemination of content. Social learning, care, and connection are critical elements of learning. Students appreciated the human connection from staff who checked in on them, had coffee chats/ drop-in sessions, and were flexible about timeframes.

Even in the best-case scenario of 2021 being less impacted by remote learning, the uncertainty of 2020 will be felt by students for some years yet. With budget cuts (and the resulting institutional ramifications) none of us will be operating as business as usual for some time yet. We need to remember that students did not have the usual traditional university experience this year and may be missing some foundational knowledge and skills we might usually take for granted.

The uncertainties of COVID and related future crises demand that we plan for and accommodate increased flexibility and adaptability and approaches to education that are responsive to both students and current social contexts. The current crisis, or “turning point,” if you will, has presented us with a unique opportunity to shift our systems and practices. We need to think beyond zoom and video-lectures as the main means of online learning. We all know learning is so much more. Equity and diversity need to be at the forefront of our thinking and interaction and co-creation are key aspects of engagement.

Authors

  • Cheryl Brown – Associate Professor, University of Canterbury
  • Ashwini Datt – Curriculum Development Manager and PhD candidate, The University of Auckland.
  • Dianne Forbes – Senior Lecturer, University of Waikato
  • Dilani Gedera – Senior Lecturer and Teaching and Learning Manager at Auckland University of Technology.
  • Maggie Hartnett – Senior Lecturer, Massey University
  • Ciara Alfonso – PhD candidate, University of Canterbury
  • Zahra Mohamed – PhD candidate, University of Waikato