What is an effective digital experience for learners?

Sarah KnightSarah Knight, Head of Learning and Teaching Transformation at Jisc, looks at the findings of its recent research on learners’ experiences and expectations of digital learning and asks what can be learnt from them.

Over the past year, colleges and training providers have had to rapidly reshape their teaching provision. With the changing requirements as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has never been more crucial to listen to the voices of learners. Staff need to understand learners’ expectations, and to know where and how they are studying, to ensure they have access to devices, WiFi, and the platforms they need to undertake their learning online.

A Jisc survey carried out between October and December 2020 helps provide much of that information and in turn highlights that many learners are struggling with issues that are critical to the success of online learning.

Jisc’s digital experience insights surveys allow providers to collect valid, representative and actionable data from their learners and staff about the digital environment: helping them see how technologies are being used in learning and teaching as well as across the organisation.

What learners want

Ten further education and sixth form colleges in England ran our survey with their learners during the last quarter of 2020 and gathered the collective experiences of 5,372 learners. Eight per cent of these respondents were entry level learners, 37% were level 1 or 2 learners, and 55% were level 3.

Their responses provide valuable insights into how they are navigating digital poverty and their digital wellbeing. Their answers also address the support they need for developing their digital skills, and what they need in order to become effective online learners.

Challenges and concerns

Despite the unpredictable nature of the lockdowns, 63% of learners still expected their learning experience to be at college, although the reality was only 38% of learners were learning physically on site.

During the second month-long national lockdown from early November to early December 2020, the majority of learners experienced a mixture of on site and online learning (48%) with just 14% learning solely online. The majority of learners were doing their online studying at home.

Unsurprisingly, learners experienced a number of challenges, including poor WiFi connection (36%), mobile data costs (15%), and no safe or private space to study (9%). Many also had problems with accessing online platforms and services. All of these issues are major obstacles for online study and raise concerns about digital poverty. Half of learners agreed they were given the chance to be involved in decisions about online learning. The intense focus on providing a good learning experience throughout the pandemic and the efforts that colleges have made in listening and responding to learner needs and concerns is clearly having an impact.

“The most positive aspect of online learning is that it still feels like a classroom as we can engage in calls and I don’t have to physically travel to learn.” (Learner quote)

Positive about quality and support

Despite the challenges learners are facing, overall they were positive about the quality of online and digital learning on their course: 68% of all respondents rated it as being either ‘best imaginable’, ‘excellent’ or ‘good’; 58% said online learning materials were well designed. On the flipside, less than half of learners agreed that online learning materials were engaging and motivating.

Two thirds of learners had accessed course materials and notes. Substantial numbers had also submitted coursework, taken part in live online lectures/teaching sessions and conducted online research tasks.

Collaborative and engaging activities have been less well used, which is a concern since this is an aspect of learning that we know learners value, and an opportunity to develop skills that are valued by employers. For example, less than a quarter had worked on group projects – practice that is routine in many industries.

The lack of feedback is also an issue, with fewer than half of learners receiving feedback on their work. Learners highlighted the value of timely feedback in the qualitative responses from the surveys and this is clearly an area for improvement.

“I would like online lessons to be more interactive and more enjoyable as I find I learn better through completing tasks and workbooks rather than reading from textbooks etc.” (Learner quote)

Learners were generally positive overall about the support they received for online learning, with 71% rating it as ‘best imaginable’, ‘excellent’ or ‘good’. However, the survey identified areas where further support and guidance is required.

Only 63% said they received support for learning online, with 54% saying they received guidance about the digital skills they needed for their course, while less than half agreed they received an assessment of their digital skills and training needs.

This kind of support is especially important right now. Activities to engage learners in reviewing and reflecting on their digital skills can take place prior to starting their course to help them make the adjustment from using technology generally to actively using it to advance their learning.

“I have gained new technical skills and improved my virtual communication and time management skills.” (Learner quote)

Following a trend in survey results over recent years, 2020s learners turned first to their lecturers and tutors for support with online learning. The percentages who called on friends and family this year is higher than in recent years – probably because, if studying off-site, they were a more accessible source of knowledge. Online videos and resources were the third most likely option. Fewer learners reported turning to peers for help with online learning this year, perhaps because there has been less opportunity to form bonds with fellow learners – something that use of shared channels and collaborative online group work may help to develop.

In their own words

As part of the survey responses, learners were asked what they thought were the most positive and negative aspects of online learning, how they felt the quality of online and digital learning could be improved, and what one thing they felt their college should do to help them learn effectively online. Their responses provide a valuable check list for staff to enhance their current practice and to support learners to become more effective at online study:

  • Get the basics right – WiFi (on/off campus), access to reliable hardware and software, clear navigation to learning content, timetabling and session scheduling, audio and lighting of online sessions.
  • Make learning sessions more interactive (e.g. quizzes, games, tests), small group tasks so students feel connected to each other, their course and their college. 
  • Record lessons and make them available soon after delivery to aid personal learning preferences, revision and catch-up.
  • Train and support teachers to use online tools effectively and in a pedagogically sound and inclusive way.
  • Think about the pace of delivery (too fast/too slow) and consider shorter bursts and regular breaks.
  • Create opportunities to talk to/ask questions of teachers and fellow learners and give timely individual and group support. 
  • Offer timely feedback on formative and summative assessment activities.

“Slow down in lessons a bit and ensure lesson recordings from online lessons are sent to us after class so if we didn’t understand anything we can re-watch the class.” (Learner quote)

The way forward

It has been challenging for colleges to manage the changing landscape and meet student expectations. Teaching staff and learning technology teams have worked tirelessly to design and deliver a comparable online curriculum, with the introduction of new and innovative ways of communicating, learning and teaching.

The interpersonal aspect of learning has been harder to support and the wellbeing of many learners has suffered. Having said that, some learners, perhaps those with social anxiety issues, report having enhanced access to teaching and tutorial staff and find it less daunting to participate in small, online discussions than in large face-to-face lectures.

Now is the time for colleges and training providers to work in partnership with their learners to co-design a world-class digital experience – one in which technology is integrated in a pedagogically sound and inclusive way.

We need to develop further opportunities for all learners to develop the skills they need to thrive through these challenging times, flourish in the fast-changing digital world and progress in their careers.  

Read the report: Student digital experience insights survey 2020/21, Findings from UK further education (pulse 1: October-December 2020).

About the author: Sarah Knight is Head of Learning and Teaching Transformation at Jisc. She has managed the team supporting the Digital Experience Insights Service which is researching staff and students’ expectations and experiences of the digital environment, and the team which developed the Building Digital Capability Service to support the development of staff and student digital capabilities.

Sarah has established the Change Agents’ Network, a national network to support staff-student partnership working on technology enhanced curriculum projects. She established and runs the Jisc Student Experience Experts Group, an active community of practice, which provides valuable consultation and dissemination opportunities for Jisc.

She has recently been appointed to the Association of Colleges Services board as a non-executive director.

Sarah has worked for Jisc for 17 years and has led large transformation projects on curriculum design, digital literacies and learners’ experiences of technology. She has a Master of Science degree in Chemistry and is a Certified Member of the Association of Learning Technology (CMALT).

About this blog: This is the eighth in a series of Essential Digital Skills ‘Thought Pieces’ intended to stimulate discussion and dialogue around the development of effective practice in the delivery of digital skills to those who are digitally excluded. They are part of the ETF’s CPD programme for those delivering and preparing to deliver the new Essential Digital Skills Qualifications (EDSQs). You can access all of the pieces via the Essential Digital Skills CPD programme page.

Contributors come from a range of backgrounds including current practitioners and those with responsibility for supporting teachers’ CPD, as well as advocates of adult education in different contexts, both formal and informal.

These pieces aim to explore how practitioners in a range of settings are helping to inform quality standards by working collaboratively to test out new pedagogical strategies and digital resources.

Thinking around digital skills delivery has been very significantly affected by the impact of Covid-19, and contributors address the challenge there has been for teachers to upskill rapidly for remote delivery. Currently, there is no established framework setting out the features of ‘effective’ delivery of digital skills online, but these pieces help us to go some way in understanding what works in different contexts.

Comments on this, and the other pieces in the series, are welcomed on Twitter using the hashtag #EDSThoughts.

The ETF does not necessarily endorse any of the strategies, tools or approaches mentioned in these pieces.