The prospect of a transition to technology-based learning had been on the higher education horizon for some time but the trend was slow in coming until the pandemic accelerated its arrival to breakneck speed.
Higher education providers have put virtual teaching, learning and assessment in place so students can continue studying safely at home. Now we need to move beyond emergency measures such as recorded lectures and think about how to better engage students digitally to improve their satisfaction with online learning.
For students to thrive in the new online and blended-learning environment, there has to be nothing short of a wholesale revolution in the way students navigate the digital world and shape their own learning.
Remote learning makes it more important than ever that students understand how to use their university’s IT platforms to best effect.
While it may be straightforward enough for students to access lectures, resources and course materials through the university’s systems, are students confident in using all the features of their VLE or video-conferencing platforms?
Online engagement is critical, and students need to know how to interact with their tutors and fellow students through the university’s designated channels. Keeping track of which students are participating in course-based discussion forums is important, because those who are not involved could be missing out on key information and the opportunity to share topic knowledge.
The process for submission and assessment of work needs to be crystal clear, too. Students may not get the most from feedback on their assignments, for example, if they don’t know how to open and read the comments that have been made about their piece of work.
The shift to online teaching does not always come naturally, even to the most gifted instructor. According to the Office for Students, many providers are organising training sessions for academic staff on digital skills and the core principles of digital pedagogy.
They quote the example of “star teachers” – who had been early adopters of digital teaching and learning – presenting in collaboration with learning technologists on topics such as how to foster a sense of community when teaching online.
It’s all too easy to assume that Generation Z, the first generation to have grown up with the internet, will be naturals at navigating the online world. It’s certainly true that many students conduct their lives through their smartphones and can communicate their feelings eloquently through a pithy image or meme.
This does not automatically mean a digital native can successfully learn online.
The authors of a paper entitled “Moving on from millennials: preparing for Generation Z” suggest that while students’ ability to obtain information from online sources seems impressive, they lack the ability to critique the validity of the information and are likely to get frustrated if answers are not clear immediately.
While Generation Z know their way around digital technology, they still need to learn how to use it effectively to support learning. Institutions have a responsibility to provide a structured programme to teach students how to identify, research and interpret content they find online.
With more information available than ever before, students should not simply be consumers of content, they should be learning how to curate that content for the purposes of their learning.
For students to succeed, they need the motivation to work independently. This is particularly the case when much of the learning is being carried out online.
However, in the UK, like many other countries, our education systems have not been set up to encourage independent learning. Students find themselves propelled along a trajectory of GCSE to post-16 qualification to degree, and understandably the focus is on getting good grades.
That’s why universities have an important role to play in helping students explore their subjects more widely by encouraging them to question the content they find online and reflect on how this adds to their knowledge.
Technology alone will never replace good teaching. The best environment for self-directed learning is one where it becomes second nature for students to seek out knowledge and push the barriers of their understanding under the guidance of a lecturer.
Self-directed learning not only helps students succeed in their studies, it also prepares them for the changing nature of the workplace. Today’s careers landscape favours those who invest time, energy and passion in their careers by continually refining their existing skills and mastering new ones – through independent learning.
As universities reopen for face-to-face teaching, online learning will continue to be an evolving element of any higher education course. By equipping students with the digital and self-learning skills to navigate the information age, we are setting them up to succeed in their studies, and in their future careers.