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Lessons learned from the digital student experience

As online studying becomes the new normal, what can we draw from the digital student experience when working from home? CoSector’s Clare McSheaffrey takes a look

As online studying becomes the new normal, what can we draw from the digital student experience when working from home? CoSector’s Clare McSheaffrey takes a look

I listened to a webinar this week with a diverse bunch of students from around the world, chaired by a lecturer, discussing their experiences of learning during lockdown. Everyone had their lessons moved online of course and the chair started by asking them all what their teachers were using to do this.

Microsoft Teams and Blackboard seemed to be the most common platforms, with a slight preference for Teams, as well as G Suite and WhatsApp. All the students said each platform or software worked well on its own, but the fragmentation and variety of online tools being used was a bit annoying, and one mature student, who admitted not being very tech-savvy generally, said getting used to the technology was as much a learning process as the content of her lectures.

That made me think about my experience of working from home. We’ve been using Teams pretty much all the time, and it works well. I had been using it on and off before lockdown, but now everything is done using this platform. Meetings are synced with my outlook calendar, they can be recorded for anyone who can’t make it on the day to catch up later, documents can be easily shared, chat function works really well… there haven’t been any issues at all. My only problem was discovering how slow my broadband was. Before lockdown it was fine for Netflix and social media, but woefully slow for work demands. I upgraded my account, got a new router in 5 days and switched on to new superfast broadband 3 days later, I haven’t looked back since.

Navigating technical issues

For more personal interaction, I’ve used Teams for catch ups with colleagues out of work hours – ladies who lunch has become ladies who like lockdown cocktails, or locktails. But with family and friends we’ve been using Zoom or WhatsApp. I don’t think I’ve had a single catch up so far where we’ve all got online and had our chat without any difficulty. Someone always has problems with logging on, sound but no video, or the opposite, buffering and dropouts – not everyone has boosted their broadband like I did. Keeping in touch, so important during lockdown for mental health in particular, has its technical problems, just as online learning and teaching has seen.

Back in the webinar, the students were asked to discuss negative issues, or problems they had experienced. A few of the students agreed that the biggest problem was the lack of social interaction. Some initiatives such as film club nights and other hobby groups had been set up, but the social learning experience students go through sadly can’t be replicated online.

Nobody mentioned poor internet speed but we know access to reliable internet, or even IT equipment is not equitable. Universities, schools and colleges are having to deal with that problem, and it’s relevant in the workplace too. Our office space (a university building) is closed until at least early July and then only for a very small number of staff who need to physically be in the building. Which means my kit with ergonomic keyboard and mouse, noise cancelling headphones, office chair and two screens on a stand at my desk are all inaccessible in the office. I’ve ordered a new stand and an office chair and I’m using an old keyboard with the Windows logo and the AltGR key missing. I don’t really know what the AltGr key does anyway so no big deal.

Back in the classroom there hasn’t been a great deal of other technology seen by our student panel other than the LMS or video, although one student had seen an impressive remote lab lecture using lots of cameras in a Russian university, but he thought it was quite rare to see that in action.

Time for immersive tech?

Immersive technologies such as VR and AR surely have a place in online learning but how many institutions can now afford to roll out that kind of technology if they are not already using it?

Then the chair switched tack and asked the students what benefits they had seen from online learning. All of them agreed that being able to attend webinars, which had previously been live seminars, was an added bonus, and they had all taken part in more than they would have done before now that there were no geographical or other physical barriers to attendance. This clearly offered the students more opportunity to learn from different sources, network and contribute outside their own classroom.

Another very positive outcome was the increased commentary from students who were previously quite introvert in the classroom. The ability to raise a hand and ask a question, or post something in chat had dramatically improved engagement according to one student, and he felt this was beneficial in offering more perspective that might not have been seen otherwise.

Consumption of educational content, all students agreed, was now much improved. Having recordings of lectures to go back and check notes was a plus. The chair asked what the best way to deliver video content was and the majority of students agreed shorter videos in 8-10 minute bundles rather than a long 90 minute video was best. However a good point well made by one of the students was that it didn’t really matter how long a video was, if the content was engaging and delivery energetic, your attention span was much longer. She pointed out that we’ve all sat through live dull lectures, so there was no reason to think online lectures would be any different, unless the teacher utilised a more active learning style.

Reading the room… and paying attention

Translating these points to working at home, I’m sure we’ve all experienced online meetings since lockdown that left us thinking why am I even here?! I haven’t learned anything, we haven’t agreed any action points and actually I drifted off at one point so not sure exactly what the outcome was. People who normally wouldn’t say anything in a live meeting don’t tend to contribute more in online meetings – unless, and here’s the key learning point, we use video. The chair said he had insisted that video was used for all his lectures so he could see every face, could scan for reaction and try to read the room. He also used ‘cold-calling’ – telling a student he would call them in 5 minutes for a quick hi how’s it going chat kept students on their toes. Imagine if you got a call from your MD in the middle of a meeting to check if you were paying attention!

Being able to see everyone’s faces, gauge responses and contribution from everyone has improved response and outcomes I feel. It is personal preference of course for some meetings or team catch ups. I guess depending on the environment you are working in at home – kids, pets, partners, washing machines, untidy spaces, or whether you’ve washed your hair or changed out of your pyjamas will affect whether you want to be seen, or just heard.