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Why universities must see digital learning technologies as a core strategic investment

Rachael Curzons, Chief Partnerships Officer at Aula

The controversy surrounding the grading of this year’s A-level results in Scotland and the rest of the UK are merely another stage in a year of radical change for the higher education system.

Having finished Year 13 remotely and missed the experiences of exams, final days with friends and open days, the Covid cohort of students who did receive the grades that will see them through to their desired universities, face further uncertainty about what they will experience next.

They will have many questions, not least of which are: How will campus life be different to that experienced by previous generations? With social distancing a feature of life for the foreseeable future, will their learning meet the standards they expect?

Having recently used some level of technologies for learning – even if it was email or a school intranet – many will be expecting digital to be a significant feature of academic life, especially in the first year.

A recent study about the student experience through and after Covid-19 by Pearson and Wonkhe has found that 59% of students want “high quality online teaching” for their next term, followed by “consistent approach to teaching across modules”. When asked how they think online learning could be improved, the respondents have chosen “more interactive learning” and “more opportunities to ask questions”. What they want is more engagement with their lecturers, as they would if they were on a physical campus.

COVID-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of higher education, shifting digital learning from secondary concern to a strategic priority in a matter of months. It’s now clear that digital learning will become a core part of the educational experience, as for many students it has been in ad hoc ways previously, so how can universities develop a teaching and learning strategy that embeds digital, rather than creating a false dichotomy between digital learning and face to face learning? They need something that will work not just in the post Covid period, but for the long-term.

Many will use legacy technologies in the shape of the LMS, or VLEs, others will be experimenting with Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but universities must address a series of challenges around seamless experience, and issues that require careful thought if they are to achieve value, student engagement and successful use by faculties.

Matching high expectations: Nowadays, students are the most digitally native people on the planet – having grown up with Facebook and Instagram, they live on social media. For them, the online world is as important as the real one, and subconsciously, they will be comparing a university’s digital learning platform to one of their mobile apps. Hence, a good learning platform will offer sophisticated interactions that are mobile-first, combining instant messaging, workflows and commentary as well as document sharing and co-creation of content for learning experiences.

Diversity and inclusion: Although many students want to embrace the full campus experience a substantial proportion won’t or can’t. To a single parent in a single laptop home, a digital learning platform that is for example mobile-friendly isn’t an add-on to the university experience, it’s essential to achieving a degree amidst a myriad of other pressures. Digital inclusion and diversity are two-sides of the same coin, and Covid has clarified them as two of the most important issues that businesses and organisations face everywhere. An effective digital learning solution could be a critical step in the right direction for higher education institutions.

Community centred: Whilst young people go to universities to gain knowledge on a specific subject and develop themselves, they also want to create friendships that last a lifetime and their sense of belonging is crucial to retention. A digital community during a pandemic is the way forward. With this in mind, investing in technology that offers ease of use for academics, when it comes to community-building is crucial, and the barriers to engaging with other humans through that technology is paramount.

Team integration and efficiency: The last thing your academic and administrative team need is a technology that requires hours invested in learning how to use it to make it work well. The user experience is as vital to academics who must deliver learning via the platform, communicate with students and provide feedback easily and quickly.

Confident and the right questions: One of the main obstacles for universities to achieve an effective learning technology strategy is knowing which system will enhance the students’ experience and improve their communication with academics. Asking the right questions and looking for the right features in a digital learning platform has never been more important. 

Rachael Curzons, Chief Partnerships Officer at Aula 

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