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Now is the time for more than digital change if universities want to prove value for money

Gauthier Van Malderen, CEO of Perlego
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As universities look ahead to the next academic year with ‘blended’ styles of learning in mind, they will also likely be looking for ways to demonstrate the value for money their institutions offer, at a time where students must be partially detached from their education. 

Already, more than 111,000 applicants (1 in 6) have deferred their first year, as they would rather enjoy the full university experience than partake in remote learning and restricted social opportunities.  

This is a serious blow to universities across the UK. 

The Coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated significant shortcomings from a digital learning perspective. However, universities can still demonstrate value for those students that will be joining for their first term in September, but it will require a wider review into some of the longer-standing challenges that students face when it comes to the higher education’s teaching structures, rather than simply adopting a few online learning resources. 

From the outdated module system and pricey reading lists, to the lack of preparation for the working world that students are provided with. 

Universities must begin to respond to the needs of their students, especially in light of the frustrations so far. 

By updating some of these systems, universities can facilitate more creativity and liberation, and not only demonstrate value for money, but offer students better prospects, broaden their horizons, and more chances for educational fulfillment.

1. The traditional module system is broken

Many students are often bound to modules they have no interest in, simply because professors, or departmental logistics, deem those units necessary. 

Whilst some set modules play an important role in providing an introduction to the key knowledge needed to progress in their chosen course, there should be an allowance for students to develop further through external readings, and to follow their own interests within their subject of study. 

Students are currently offered very limited academic freedom once they have been accepted onto their course at university. The focus on two or three compulsory modules limits the breadth of content matter and prohibits students from developing a wider knowledge of their degree subject, that they may have otherwise been fascinated by.  

Even before the current pandemic forced restrictions on student learning, the National Student Survey found, in 2019, that 3 in 5 students were dissatisfied with the resources provided by their universities which are necessary to pass modules and obtain a qualification. As institutions are obliged to adopt blended learning, there is a real opportunity to ensure students receive the necessary support required to improve their university experience. 

University libraries, despite their intentions, are not built for indulging curiosity. Often they contain limited numbers of the textbooks students require, and demand for these can often mean students have little choice but to purchase them themselves, or search out illegal online versions. 

With digital libraries becoming more commonplace, each student should be allocated time to further their own interests, helping to keep them engaged and boost student satisfaction when it is needed most. Digital resources like Perlego, not only offer unlimited access to the textbooks students are required to read, but also thousands of titles covering a variety of topics that students might want to read. 

Broadening access to learning resources through tools like this can, in turn, impact students’ academic performance. 

Research has shown that students who read more not only achieve higher marks in assessments, but also become more involved in class discussions and develop superior reading and writing comprehension.

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By allowing exploration of a variety of different topics, universities will be able to offer students a more comprehensive outlook on the world and can actually better prepare them for future careers.

2. Preparing students for the working world

Most students believe that obtaining a degree will propel them into a career, however, this is often not the case. Although enabling more independent learning will be key to preparing them for the future, much more support is needed. 

The Student Employability Index found that, out of 4,000 students at 20 different universities, 79% expect to be employed within six months of graduating. Modern employers, though, sought out professional, versatile individuals with the breadth of knowledge. As a result, government figures show that only 53% of students who have graduated in the past five years are in graduate-level jobs. 

Universities can impart this knowledge to students, but many currently don’t. 

From teaching specific skills like interview techniques and providing relevant reading materials, to offering 1-2-1 mentoring, now is the time for universities to better support their students by investing more time into the development of those professional skills. 

In doing so, we would see a substantial change in graduates’ aptitude and their ability to transition from university to the working world.

3. Digital learning needs to be more than just lectures and reading lists: 

Students will, of course, expect universities to continue to provide the same amount of relevant content and experienced lecturing they have become accustomed to in their next term. 

There is also an expectation, however, that Universities go above and beyond to think about how a digital experience can deliver the same ‘student experience’ outside of the classroom.  

Going into the next academic year, students will be required to form social ‘bubbles’ – likely just those people who will be in their seminar groups and those they are sharing accommodation with. 

With limited options for a  physical freshers week, society or sports socials and meet-ups, or nights out with new friends, students could be left feeling very isolated. This is a huge concern, especially for incoming students who will be entering a new, unfamiliar world, completely alone. 

Staff need to seek out digital platforms which can act as a support network for students.

They should offer online extra-curricular activities to allow students to burst out of the social bubbles and offer online support groups so students do not feel completely isolated from their university and peers. 

From offering more flexibility, to providing tailored mentoring, and exploring opportunities that engage students outside of their studies, whilst safely widening their social bubble, universities can (and should) help students feel less negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic going forward. 

The rise of online learning can provide globally accessible, boundary-pushing and innovative ways of teaching that will encourage students to become more independent and better prepare them for their futures.  Institutions just need to decide if they are going to embrace this. It’s now or never.

Gauthier Van Malderen, CEO of Perlego

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