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What are students expecting of universities next year?

By John Choi,  Unitu’s communication officer, is a final-year student at University College London (UCL). He was an elected Course Representative and then Lead Department Representative for the Faculty of Laws, and has won the UCL Students’ Union Academic Rep of the Year Award 2019 and 2020.

September is soon upon us and universities must soon make a decision on how Term One of the next academic year must proceed (if they haven’t already!).

In our third and final instalment of our ‘Hearing Student Voices Through COVID-19’ series, we hear from students what their expectations are for the next academic year and if a large proportion of teaching is to be brought online, what ideas they might have to make virtual learning a better experience.

Looking ahead to 2020/21

What is clear is that there is no single preferred approach that all, or even the majority of, students share. Each of our students have experiences unique to them and have varied opinions and perspectives on how universities should plan for the year ahead.

Before explaining what their ideal scenario for the next year would be, our student interviewees prefaced their expectations with a reminder that safety should be the priority when making any decisions. Yousif, president of his university’s medical student association said, “I think the thing that universities have to prioritise is safety, and that is safety to the students, to teaching staff and to the public as well.”

Speaking in (very) general terms, there are at least three different scenarios that can be identified from our student interviews:

  1. Some students wish for Term One to be entirely based on online teaching. Then in the next term, and with the permission from authorities, transition back to in-person teaching.
  2. Some students wish for some version of a hybrid approach, where large-group teaching (such as lectures) will be brought online and smaller-group teaching (such as tutorials or lab sessions) will be conducted in-person whilst complying with social distancing measures.
  3. Some students wish to be offered the option to be taught online or in-person.

Students who prefer the first approach were not enemies of an in-person student experience, rather they were conscious about the potential risks of returning to an on-campus environment. And when this was stacked against the benefits and enjoyment of having an in-person teaching experience, they felt it would be wisest for universities to remain online, at least for the foreseeable future. As Abi said, “I think [face-to-face teaching] shouldn’t be something that universities should rush back into doing.”

According to our students, virtual learning, if done right, can offer an adequate substitute for in-person teaching. Konstantinos went so far as to say that “there’s a consensus in my cohort that we prefer online lectures.”

Abi, who was always a distance learning student before COVID-19, reassured us that it is only natural that students do not feel immediately accustomed to a virtual classroom experience at first. “It does take some time getting used to,” she said. She went on to mention the added benefits that a virtual learning experience could bring to the table, for instance it “gives you the flexibility of being able to work and study and that might help some students… [whereas] before they wouldn’t have been able to.”

On the other hand, proponents of the second approach emphasised that some sort of social experience was integral to a university experience. They were hopeful that universities would host some smaller group tutorials in person (in accordance with physical distancing measures, of course), whilst having larger group teaching go online.

Many students were of the opinion that teaching and learning would be far more effective if carried out in-person than online. Aishah said, “I just personally feel like having more in person face-to-face contact is useful because you can actually ask a tutor in real time. Having to email them never really gets the same sort of response. They either don’t respond right away or they just don’t fully answer your question. Actually explaining things in-person is so important and having that whole interaction is part of the university life.”

“You expect something when you go to university and I think it would be such a shame for it to be taken away,” she concluded.

This was echoed by Zenni, who also urged universities to maintain at the very least some version of in-person teaching, “even if it’s 70:30, 70 being online and 30 being [in-person].”

Worryingly, Elizabeth, a course representative, told us, “I think I’d be concerned if it was all online again for a whole year. I spoke to some people in my course, and they said they would defer for the year if it was all online.”

The third approach makes sense. As mentioned, there is not (and should not be) a one-size-fits-all solution for an issue as diverse and complex as this. Understandably, this option-based approach if adopted, will be resource intensive, as universities would have to prepare for two versions of the same content delivery, one online and the other in-person. But perhaps this is the price that needs to be paid to ensure that no group of students is unduly disadvantaged.

Nicola, who is a proponent of this approach, said, “[universities] should have the option for coming into classes, but they should also have online groups for those who don’t wish to travel.” Especially for international students and students based in different parts of the UK, she said, “it doesn’t make sense for them to travel down to London (where her university campus lies) every week for just two hours of classes, and that’s going to cost them a lot of money.”

She suggested that universities “take a survey of students who want to do classes online and those who want to do it in-person, and split them into different tutorial groups.”

Some ideas on improving online teaching

Regardless of which approach universities eventually adopt, it is hard to imagine that a significant portion of learning and teaching won’t be made online. What is evident from our interviews is that students had a plethora of ideas on how universities and teachers can make virtual learning more effective, engaging and enjoyable, based on their experiences during lockdown.

The magic word, reiterated in almost all our interviews, is “interaction”. Teachers and lecturers should make use of the features in existing virtual learning softwares to keep students as engaged as possible. Yousif explained that teachers could “take advantage of [these features] to make their lectures more interactive, for example, quizzes, online polls, or even allowing students to voice their opinion on a certain topic very quickly in the chat. The chat feature is very important in these online lectures because students are going to be more comfortable typing out answers, rather than raising their hand and saying it in front of a whole lecture.”

Kush, a medical student, recalled his lecturers’ use of virtual simulation sessions which he thought was a fantastic way of engaging students.. “You see the ‘patient’, and then people have to vote on what the next best step is, and then… you see how they improve.”

Interestingly, Samia suggested that lecturers could set photos of the lecture theatres as their virtual backgrounds, in order to simulate the environment of being in a lecture.

Our students emphasised the value of having a space where students can ask questions and expect a prompt response during a lecture. As Anji recalled, “sometimes it’s hard if the lecturer makes it so that you can’t comment or raise your hand because they don’t want any distractions.”

The importance of staff training was also iterated by our students. We understand that adapting to technology is just as difficult for staff as it is for students. Alexis was sympathetic to staff, and said “I don’t want to pressure them to learn extra things.” She suggested that universities could provide “a short optional course of learning tools [for staff] to improve online engagement.” If adequate support is given by universities to their teaching team, lecturers will be able to spend less time grasping the intricacies of virtual platforms and use their time (and students’ time) more efficiently by actually teaching.

The key to planning for September?

Yes, you guessed it… It’s hearing your students!

Universities have a difficult task in front of them. And when faced with such short timeframes, the temptation to make unconsulted decisions in the name of crisis management is a strong one. If there is one thing to be taken away from our ‘Hearing Student Voices Through COVID-19’ series, it’s that understanding the spectrum of different experiences, and allowing space where all voices are valued is essential to shaping higher education policies.

At Unitu, we want to help universities do exactly that! Using our award-winning platform and research-validated platform, we provide universities with the tools necessary to navigate through their student voice in this perplexing time. To request a demo, sign up here and a member of our team will be in touch with you.

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