COVID-19 – arguably the most momentous event of the 21st century. The Higher Education sector has of course been significantly affected, and some changes will persist, even when we get to return to a new normal.  SUMS is undertaking a comparative study of university approaches to distance learning to help the sector understand what works and what doesn’t. While we undertake that work, SUMS Associate Felicity Gasparro has been exploring how it feels as an undergraduate student to suddenly be on the receiving end of ‘distance’ or ‘digital’ learning. And does it stop at learning, or is there a greater responsibility to support student wellbeing and sense of community?

The traditional undergraduate student experience relies on campus-based learning, and although distance learning is increasing in importance in the HE sector, it has broadly been slow to lift off.  We went out to students with a range of questions to better understand how they’re experiencing the change. Our survey is still open, so please do share this with any undergraduates you have in your networks. While our sample size is small, it gives a flavour of the undergraduate experience. Respondents represented a range of universities across the UK including Leeds, Lancaster, Portsmouth, Nottingham, Leicester and Winchester. Eighty-six per cent of respondents were first-year students, with the remainder in their second year of study.

What did our group of undergrads have to say?
Nearly half of our students said that their experiences of remote learning had so far been ‘somewhat effective’, with just one respondent saying their experiences had been ‘very effective’ – perhaps this is not surprising given the newness of approach for many students, institutions and lecturers.  One student called out real concern for their progression to their second year –

“All my exams have been cancelled and as I progress onto year 2, I am finding it hard to develop essay writing skills”.

When we asked the students, what had been most important to them in enabling them to continue their studies, we gave five options:

The range between the scores was relatively tight, so the importance of all these elements is key to providing an enhanced and viable opportunity to support off-site teaching and learning.

How are universities helping students?
Students still want to see you and value the group and individual contact they receive. One student stated:

“I’ve received many emails with offers of support with both my studying and my mental/physical health. I also had a video call with my personal tutor where he outlined the situation for me more clearly and answered any questions I had. My lecturers are online during the times they would normally be giving a lecture, so they are available to contact”.

On the flip side, one student told us:

“There’s been very little help and guidance – just an overload of emails saying the same thing and promising more information at an undisclosed time”.

We would suggest that, particularly for first-year UG students, the role of the Academic Tutor is crucial to provide a human face on the university, help students navigate the support available to them, and make the most of their online learning experience.

Students report that the delivery of some of the newer ways of working have been clunky, but they can see the lecturers are working hard to get this right.

Methods of digital learning delivery include:

  • PowerPoint presentations
  • Zoom seminars
  • Recorded lectures
  • Online / streamed lectures
  • Video call tutorials
  • Online lecture notes
  • Podcasts

Providing a sense of community
Attending university is often as much about the opportunity to meet new people and form a new community, as it is about studying and achieving a degree. It’s unsurprising that our students prioritised the continuation of the development of their student community in our survey. They also rated highly the importance of mental health and wellbeing, and this reinforces what is a commonly accepted factor of importance for millennials and Gen Z – general health and wellbeing matters. Student community and health and wellbeing go hand in hand, and students were appreciative of universities which had increased access to student services relating to mental health and wellbeing.

Covid-19 has impacted on all communities, not just students. But we sense that there are great things the wider population can learn from the resilience of this current cohort. They cited a wide range of established and new social media channels including facetime, groupchats, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Skype and House Party. Every participant commented on this question, which underlines just how important this is. One student specifically highlighted gratitude to their student union for proactively getting into the social media space:

“SU has created a Facebook page to discuss the pandemic and to focus on positive experiences in the midst of it”.

What next?
Technology can be the great enabler of distance learning, and those institutions which can grasp this, create agile development of online learning techniques, and upskill their workforce to underpin this approach, will weather this storm better than those who see this as a temporary blip, and perhaps an inconvenience. As well as enhancing access to learning, creating properly embedded distance learning tools may also help HEI to build financial resilience at a time when universities are under growing financial pressures – to deliver more for less, with agility, and without relying on physical space to do so.

Although some may perceive, and hope, Covid-19 is going to be a short-term disruption to normality, our sense is this will shift ways, means and expectations of access to study permanently. SUMS has helped the sector navigate change for over 50 years, but it is difficult to recall a catalyst for change as sharp and dramatic as this. As we all embrace new ways of teaching, learning and examining, we will support our members and share what works across the sector.

To find out how SUMS might be able to support you or to share your existing best practice for the benefit of others, please contact Nick Skelton,

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