Lack of study space and poor connections hinder online learning

Office for Students says survey shows some students in England are being left behind by ‘digital poverty’

September 3, 2020
Source: iStock

Almost three-quarters of English students who responded to a survey reported lacking access to quiet spaces to study and more than half said they were unable to access digital course materials following the switch to online learning.

The poll, carried out for the Office for Students, showed that the variety in ability to access higher education from home risked many students being left behind by their “digital poverty”.

It found that 72 per cent of the 1,416 surveyed students said they had been affected by a lack of access to a quiet space to study, with 24 per cent saying they were moderately impacted and 22 per cent saying they were severely impacted.

They poll also found that 56 per cent reported an impact on their studies from their lack of access to appropriate online course materials and 52 per cent said that a slow or unreliable internet connection had hampered their learning.

It found that 18 per cent were impacted in some way by a lack of access to the internet and the same proportion were affected by not being able to access a laptop or computer.

The students were also asked about their satisfaction with their courses. Overall, more students said that they were satisfied – 51 per cent – with the quality of teaching during the pandemic than those who said that they were dissatisfied – 34 per cent. Students who reported having live online lectures tended to view their teaching more positively than those taught with old recorded lectures or written slides, the OfS said.

The poll also found that 60 per cent said they were satisfied with how changes to their courses were communicated, compared with 27 per cent who disagreed; and 68 per cent agreed that they were able to communicate with staff when necessary, compared with 19 per cent who disagreed; while 61 per cent agreed that their university’s approach to assessment had been made clear, compared with 26 per cent who disagreed.

However, less than half – 46 per cent – of students were satisfied with their overall course experience, and a similar amount – 43 per cent – said that they were dissatisfied.

Only 34 per cent were satisfied with the delivery of practicals, compared with 42 per cent who were dissatisfied.

Michael Barber, chair of the OfS, which has launched a review of digital teaching and learning in English higher education, said that he had been “repeatedly impressed” by universities’ efforts to deliver high-quality teaching through the difficult circumstances caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“However, it is no use making these strides if there are students who cannot access digital resources effectively. As today’s polling shows, there remain a significant number of students whose access to remote education is being disrupted – sometimes severely – by poor access to core digital infrastructure. And there remains critical progress to be made in closing persistent gaps in broadband speeds between urban and rural areas,” he said.

“Improving equality of opportunity for students from all backgrounds is central to our work…as digital teaching and learning is increasingly embedded in higher education, we cannot risk students being left behind in the rush for online innovation. That is why I have put an examination of the impact of digital poverty at the heart of this review and will ensure that the recommendations we make will have student access at their core,” Mr Barber said.

Emma Hardy, Labour’s shadow universities minister, said it was “unacceptable that any student’s education should suffer due to digital poverty. Government incompetence simply cannot be allowed to hold back young people’s futures.”

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