When I was student many years ago, I remember filling out an evaluation form in the final class. We were invited to comment on our teacher, our programme, the way assessments were delivered, all sorts of things. However, I never remember being asked if I felt the course had successfully nurtured social presence, a sense of community or social cohesion. Nor was I asked if I liked face to face teaching but then, asking me if I was satisfied with the mode of delivery would have been like asking me if I was satisfied with sitting at a desk. What was the alternative?
Several studies published just before COVID identified strongly polarised and entrenched attitudes to online learning that can set the scene for students’ experiences. Student satisfaction is directly tied to their perceptions of online learning as well as their pre-existing level of comfort with the online environment (Landrum et al, 2020; Wei & Chou, 2018; Alqurashi, 2018).
The most interesting question universities will now be asking is how forcing the majority of learners online during lockdown has impacted on their perceptions of online learning for the long-term. Traditionally, students have seen online learning as inferior to face-to- face teaching. Even though plenty of students site the convenience and autonomy of online learning as positives, online learning more widely is cast as the poorer relation to the traditional classroom, plan B.
For those who were unconvinced before COVID, a poor online experience this past year will most likely confirm their previous opinions. If learners have had a positive online experience this year, it may make them more favourable to online learning in future. Landrum et al (2020) point out that students who have learned online previously will be more willing to undertake online learning again. Should we try to ‘convert’ everyone to online learning? Perhaps not, yet the feedback from naysayers should be equally incorporated into any delivery model moving forward.
Can we make learners like online learning if they don’t? How do we make them comfortable in an online environment if they come to it unwillingly, as so many students have this last year. At my institute, we conducted a survey of students in November.
The survey found that most students were pleased with the quality of teaching, including all teaching conducted since COVID changed our delivery model in May. Yet, the majority – 65% – still wanted to return to the physical classroom when possible. In many ways, our survey didn’t ask our students enough: why did they want to go back? what do they feel is missing online?
My anecdotal experiences with students give insight: they talk about how isolated they feel, how they have no peer support to draw on and in the classroom they feel anonymous. This is freeing for the shy students as they can ask questions without ‘being in the spotlight.’ Yet, the disadvantages are hard to ignore.
As touched on earlier in this blog, I came to the online classroom expecting to be in an online classroom. There is no gap between expectation and reality for me. In some ways, BOE and SBOSE have exceeded my expectations: for example, I did not expect to find a significant level of social presence or cohesion on the course. Through group work and synchronous sessions that heavily incorporate discussion, I have experienced more cohesion that I could have anticipated. I always attend synchronous sessions when I can and so, I suspect my sense of cohesion is stronger than some of my peers, who miss the live sessions altogether.
So, SBOSE students know what they are getting themselves into, to a certain extent. However, universities must find it more challenging when considering all of the courses that were billed as face to face and are now online. Certain disciplines will find this particularly challenging.
Moving forward, all HEIs will need to adapt or die. The most successful institutions will be those that include students in the process, opening up deliberation, clearly stating what student feedback will achieve, and communicating about what the future means. Students see their education as an investment and this year often fell short of what they anticipated. Yet, the future holds an opportunity to do things better. Ensuring they are asked what they want is the only way to create an experience that is fit for purpose. This should be holistic and feed into all models of delivery, old and new.
When I think back to my own student surveys, I don’t recall having any communication regarding how my and other students’ feedback would be used. Did anyone use the information we gave them? Did they even see it as information or just a process in a series of processes?
If COVID has created shifting expectations in students about online learning, it will be vital to know. Institutions like mine are looking at student feedback and incorporating student opinion, now more than ever. Doing so gives students a sense of agency in their own learning experience, regardless of whether it is face to face or online or some blend of the two.
In conclusion, and in consideration of my own experiences in online learning as a student this year I think HEIs need to do the following when incorporating student feedback:
- Identify what worked
- Address what didn’t work
- Ensure students feel ready to learn online, including considerations around digital literacy, accessibility to technology, the success factors for online learners as identified by Simpson (2014) and others: self-efficacy, motivation and time management
- Include students in the process, every step of the way
- Be prepared to change, even where the model is entrenched
- Don’t forget students varying perceptions of social cohesion: some online students are comfortable with working autonomously but others need a social network of peers
- Be honest and open with students: this includes telling them what you can do and what you can’t, how their feedback will be used and what role student data will play, if any
I’d be interested to hear how your institution gathers student feedback and how this feedback will be used moving forward.
Alqurashi, E. (2019). Predicting student satisfaction and perceived learning within online learning environments. Distance Education, 40(1), 133-148.
Landrum, B., Bannister, J., Garza, G., & Rhame, S. (2020). A class of one: Students’ satisfaction with online learning. Journal of Education for Business, 1-7.
Simpson, O. (2018). Supporting students in online, open and distance learning. Routledge.
Wei, H. C., & Chou, C. (2020). Online learning performance and satisfaction: do perceptions and readiness matter?. Distance Education, 41(1), 48-69.