What do university students think about their online learning experience during COVID-19?

Rebecca LeBoeuf
Rebecca LeBoeuf
August 10, 2020
Table of Contents

It’s been described as ‘the biggest experiment in online learning in history’ and we’ve all been watching with interest as universities across the world have pivoted with minimal notice to a 100% remote delivery model. For most institutions, this has involved considerable blood, sweat and tears.

In the words of Sean Michael Morris, Director of the Digital Pedagogy Lab at the University of Colorado, Denver: "People who never expected, nor ever wanted, to use digital technology to communicate or work now must, and so they are learning how."

And the stakes are high. Universities across the globe have been sweating their future as they consider how enrolment might be affected as we enter the academic year of 2020-2021. And with much talk of deferrals and declining numbers, it’s easy to assume that the student experience in times of COVID 19 has been wholly negative. The data, however, points to a considerably more nuanced picture.

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A particularly interesting piece of research conducted by the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) has found some interesting differences between responses from learners completing their annual ‘student experience’ survey before their universities went into lockdown and after. To the surprise of many, students taking the survey after the suspension of face-to-face delivery reported more positive attitudes to their teaching and support.

Although it’s unclear how much of this variation can be attributed solely to the transition to online classes, the results make for some fascinating reading. We learn, for instance, that students feel their learning has improved during the country’s lockdown because the ‘mass lecture’ has been placed by more one-to-one time. Students also say that teachers now explore their interests more and that staff are ‘more likely to initiate debate or discussion’.

It is, however, worth pointing out that overall perceptions of value for money are slightly lower than before the country locked down – meaning that many UK universities are now seeking ways to ‘add value’ and prove a greater ROI on student tuition fees. 

In the US, a smaller study commissioned by EY titled Higher Education and COVID-19 National Student Survey suggests that universities will need to continue finding innovative, new ways of creating a student community in the absence of face-to-face experiences. Less than half of the cohort surveyed said they were satisfied with ‘interaction and collaboration with classmates’ and one student expressed disappointment that student clubs and societies were not running social activities over Zoom. Mental health was also a concern, with 37% of students reporting dissatisfaction with services during COVID.

Similarly to their UK counterparts, learners in the US were slightly less satisfied with remote learning for lectures: although the majority (73%) said they were either satisfied or neutral overall. Over three quarters surveyed were either satisfied or neutral about remote learning for smaller, seminar style classes.

While we need to be wary of jumping to firm conclusions on the basis of just two studies, it’s probably unsurprising that this largely ‘Gen Z’ student cohort are expressing a marked preference for greater one-to-one, personalised attention and interactions. Nor is it any wonder that they’re craving a greater sense of belonging and connectedness as part of their university experience. After all, the virtual community has been central to the web 2.0 world of collaboration in which this cohort has grown up.

Four recommendations for enhancing the student experience

1. Cultivate a virtual community

Community doesn’t happen by itself, and many universities are now thoughtfully creating new virtual spaces to bind students and staff. At University College London, for instance, students can access an on-demand virtual common room where they can socialise with others at any time of day or night. Across other campuses throughout the world, ‘Netflix parties’, trivia nights and alumni outreach initiatives have proved equally popular.

Instructors sharing community-buildings tips on Twitter have also stressed the need to get back to basics: for example, by using creative and genuinely interesting ice breakers that help students get to know each other on a personal level.

2. Reconsider lecture delivery

Many have been saying for years that ‘the lecture is dead’ but student voice feedback would indicate that this is still very much a matter of opinion.  

Nonetheless, many institutions are looking to a range of interactive tools such as lecture capture and recording to enhance the experience. Faculty might also consider making lectures more succinct, ensuring face-to-face contact and incorporating more frequent, formative assessments.

Many are adopting educational technology like FeedbackFruits to support this, which allows instructors to easily make lecture captures and other videos more interactive by incorporating inline questions and discussions.

3. Organize learning

“We need to be wary of digital hoarding" points out Learning Experience Designer, Alexandra Mihai, “Just because we are teaching online, does not mean that we should overburden students. Keep things simple and don't forget to take some time to curate and annotate resources. Only share the most relevant.”

While it’s tempting to use an LMS or VLE as a virtual filing cabinet containing all the resources a student could ever need, Learning Designer, Neil Mosley, points out in his viral infographic that the VLE needs to be a place of clarity, where materials are structured and labelled.

“And why not involve students in this process?” suggests Mihai “You will help them train their information literacy skills and they will feel more ownership of their learning.”

4. Support mental health 

With student wellbeing top of the agenda for university leadership across the world, many are taking new actions to combat social isolation and loneliness during COVID 19. This has included virtual mentorship programmes and email counselling.

Some instructors are now offering weekly check-ins, and an ‘open door policy’ for anxious students, of the kind described by Irina Popescu for Inside Higher Ed. At an institutional level, there’s a greater awareness that global pandemic is affecting people in new ways and some are providing refresher training to ensure that staff can support all students and signpost the resources available to them.


Whatever our move to online may mean for the future, it’s worth reinforcing that the staff thrown into this situation have worked tirelessly to ensure continued provision for all students. After all, this was not a choice and it was not planned. In fact, many find it helpful to differentiate between the ‘online learning’ and the ‘emergency remote teaching’ that we have seen over COVID.

While we need to be wary of comparing face-to-face instruction with the situation students have been experiencing under COVID, any current data on the student experience can be used to usefully inform remote learning design and delivery in the future. All in the knowledge that mistakes will be made, lessons will be learned and that for many institutions, high quality online learning will take some time to perfect.

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