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6 Surprising Things Students Said About A Year Of Online Learning

04 Mar Rebecca Low 0 Blog

Twelve months on from the beginning of national lockdowns around the world, many students have now experienced a whole academic year of online learning. Initially, this abrupt move from classroom and lecture hall to home learning was a shock to the system. Even students who had already been participating in distance learning courses will have been impacted by the huge changes imposed on our daily lives. So what does this year of change mean for students’ expectations and experience of higher education overall?

In a recent study, learning platform Chegg surveyed undergraduates from 21 countries about their hopes, fears and ambitions after a year of living and studying through COVID-19 pandemic. The study looked at students’ mental health and wellbeing, the cost of living and learning, the ‘learning to earning’ pipeline, social attitudes and of course, the impact of online learning. Here are just some of the things students said about their experience of online learning in 2020.

Online learning must equal lower fees

One of the biggest debates across all sectors of higher education is around the cost of tuition. Even before 2020, many learners were opting for online degree programmes because they were often both more affordable and more flexible.

The majority of students surveyed by Chegg also agreed that undertaking online study should be the more affordable option. Over two-third (65%) of students agreed that they would rather their university offered the choice of online learning if it meant lower tuition fees.

The study also found, however, that having the ability to choose between online and in-person study was also important. In all 21 countries surveyed, more students preferred that a blended study model was offered than those who did not want institutions to offer the choice at all.

More online learning in future

Prior to 2020, attending university in person as an undergraduate was seen as the preferred, perhaps even expected, choice for students. Although the call for online learning was growing, it was still considered as completely separate to the standard campus-based learning structure for many institutions.

Post-2020, it seems that students are much more open to online learning options as part of their wider university experience. 48% said that they would like their university to incorporate more online learning into their programmes. In more than half of the countries surveyed, students were more likely than not to want their institution to include online learning post-pandemic. While there is still a desire for in-person learning and the social student experience that happens on campus, it is clear that there has been a shift amongst learners towards a more digital offering too.

The need for additional online learning support

While universities on the whole have gone to great lengths to ensure that quality of teaching and learning has not been compromised, students still reported finding aspects of online studying challenging. According to Chegg, 39% of students say that either they or their parents have paid for additional online platforms, tools and apps to support their learning that were not provided by their university.

This is an aspect of online learning that may potentially exacerbate inequalities amongst students. While some students can afford to supplement their learning in this way, others may not be in the same position to do so. This disparity could place less well-off students at an academic disadvantage as a result. Arguably, this is a problem that the universities themselves could hold the key to solving, through additional funding and consultation with the student body on what they need to support their continued online learning.

Confidence in online teaching

When universities around the world moved off campus and online, it was not just the students who had to adapt. University staff across all disciplines and departments had to quickly upskill not just technically but also in the way in which their teaching could be delivered online.

Half of students surveyed said that this was a relatively painless transition, with 51% saying that their teachers and professors knew how to teach effectively online. However, this does not seem to be the case across the board; 37% said that they did not think the standard of online teaching was effective. This question of confidence is an important one. If universities are to listen to their students’ calls for greater online provision, they need to be able to match this will appropriate training and knowledge-sharing for staff too.

Maintaining quality learning

Countries around the world followed differing lockdown rules and regulations, for varying periods of time throughout 2020. This meant that some universities closed completely, while others offered certain degrees of in-person learning. Of the students surveyed, 82% said that their institution stopped face-to-face teaching during the pandemic.

What did this continually changing landscape mean for the quality of online provision that was offered? The consensus is largely positive, it turns out. Of those whose in-person learning was stopped, 86% said they were provided with online learning resources to work from. Half of students rated their university’s online provision as excellent or good. More than a third of students (35%) said that, in fact, they learned just as much if not more from online learning during the pandemic as they would have in person.

Disparity in study time

When studying in person, students are likely to have set hours of contact time in classes or lectures. One change that many will have experienced is the move from synchronous to asynchronous learning, with lectures being pre-recorded and materials available 24 hours a day online.

For many, this greater flexibility will have been a positive thing, potentially giving greater time to socialise (online, of course) and look after personal health and wellbeing. This flexibility is reflected in the difference between the number of hours students reported spending on their studies each week. The highest number of hours spent was 27 hours per week, while the lowest was just over half that time, at 14 hours per week. Of the 21 countries surveyed, 12 said that they spent more hours studying during the lockdown than before. This doesn’t necessarily equate to the quality of study time, but it is interesting to note the impact of a more flexible study option on students’ behaviour.

Accentuate the positives

According to Chegg’s Director of Social Impact, Lila Thomas, ‘the world’s students are under greater pressure than at any time in living memory. Despite the fact that technology now puts a boundless world of information instantly at their disposal, today’s undergraduates face unique challenges that leave their path to success less certain than for previous generations.’ Nonetheless, the Chegg study found that students had had positive experiences during this challenging time.

The desire for greater flexibility, both academic and financial, is evident amongst the students surveyed. This chimes with findings in the working world too, with many companies moving to remote working part- or even full-time. Universities can learn a great deal from what students are saying too, with an enduring emphasis on the importance of high-quality teaching and materials.

Students and staff have come to accept and even welcome some of the changes online learning has brought. That said, excellence in teaching and engagement is still a top priority for students. Commitment to this is what will support universities and students to thrive in a post-pandemic world and enable to them excel, both online and in person.