As UK university students begin an academic year, they are experiencing a totally different way of life. Some have already found themselves in lockdown in their residences and are afraid they will not be getting some of the usual benefits of university education.
Universities have a duty of care for students’ health and well-being, and a responsibility to ensure that the students of 2020/21 experience a high quality, engaging and innovative learning experience.
It is important to universities that they provide excellent student satisfaction, and they are judged on this by students and the government. So far, it looks very possible that students will rate their experience as less satisfying than usual.
As a researcher with extensive experience in policy and practice in higher education, I suggest there are a number of vital ways in which universities can ensure student satisfaction and continued value for money.
New students often find their first term disorientating and now there are additional challenges to deal with, such as managing the use of new technologies and attending face-to-face sessions with social distancing in place.
To maintain student satisfaction and manage expectations, universities have to find ways of listening attentively to students. Institutions may have been doing all they can to support students, but it has not always felt like that to students themselves. Universities need to survey student views regularly and make changes based on these views, so that students find universities to be responsive to their needs.
Universities must not treat learners as one homogeneous group. There are not going to be “one size fits all” solutions. Some students will be keen for on-campus sessions, and others will only feel comfortable if everything is online.
Universities have to design learning which can be flexed either way, according to student demand, but also as the pandemic restrictions change. This needs to be done with a new speed and agility – something that universities are sometimes not known for.
Keep in touch
Institutions need to communicate to students more than they have ever done before, and via multiple channels. Students say that email is not the best form of communication.
More interactive ways of connecting, such as virtual question-and-answer sessions, individual phone calls replying to specific questions and social media are far more effective. Universities have a responsibility to explain what they are doing from a student’s point of view, and to tailor their responses to different students.
Finally, universities need to make good use of technology. Paradoxically, a medium which was a response to having to educate at a distance has become the means by which universities can offer a far more individualised, flexible and engaging experience. For example, online learning and communication should allow for new one-to-one conversations on study and progress, informed by data on students’ engagement with their learning.
Invest in staff and students
All this may not be easy for some staff. In the new environment, every teacher needs to be comfortable and creative with the blended technologies they are using. More than this, they need to rethink their approaches to designing, delivering and assessing everything that they taught before, so the 2020/21 curriculum will be fresh, innovative and value for money.
As ever, if you want a high quality product you need to invest, and universities pride themselves on the excellence of their learning experiences. So as well as resourcing extensive extra investment in hardware, software and networking capacity, it is necessary to invest in the training of staff. Staff will need to have the tools to ensure consistency, innovation and excellence of design.
Students also need support in order to take full advantage of the imaginative technological approaches on offer. All this is not cheap, but it is a very positive and necessary investment.
Six months ago the world changed, and with it many accepted approaches to learning and providing a holistic student experience. The relationship universities have with students has to change as a result – more interaction, more innovation and certainly more flexibility for individual learners, learning situations and approaches are all needed.