January 11, 2022

Aiming high: 10 ways universities can optimise the student experience in 2022

As the Covid-19 pandemic enters its third year, the temporary disruptions that rocked higher-education provision in the early weeks of 2020 have since escalated into the existential challenges the sector is facing today. But this rapidly evolving picture has also acted as a catalyst for long-overdue change, offering a rare opportunity to completely re-think – and potentially re-engineer – the building blocks of the higher-education journey, creating a fresh chance for universities to deliver a dramatically different blueprint in response to a radically changed world.


Reimagining the learning model

As we begin to emerge into a world transformed by Covid-19, going back to ‘business as usual’ isn’t an option. For the foreseeable future, all universities will have to aim for a high standard of programme delivery that isn’t completely reliant – or even heavily dependent – on traditional campus-based models.


When coronavirus-driven lockdowns forced learning off campus and online, many higher-education institutions lacked the capacity to scale provision across their entire course catalogue. In the same way, course leaders and their students found themselves profoundly underprepared for long stretches of remote teaching and learning. Surveys from the period show that emergency distance learning resulted in disappointment all round.


A 2020 survey by the National Union of Students reported that of students receiving online learning provision, just over half (55 percent) regarded it as ‘good’, a dip of ten percentage points from a similar survey in March.


As another new year begins and higher education organisations steer a perilous path through the Omicron wave, we look at how universities could help optimise the student experience in 2022.


1.      Champion flexibility

Offering students a more flexible approach to learning will not only increase the pool of potential recruits but could also expand its diversity. By enabling students to engage in versatile hybrid or blended learning programmes, at the same time structuring tailored support packages to meet individual needs, universities can embrace a more comprehensive approach to access and inclusion.


2.      Re-think course design

Tinkering with courses to offer more flexible access doesn’t go far enough, though. To be truly effective, learning programmes may have to be completely restructured. A recent study looking at online course design discovered a variety of characteristics that were essential for effective learning – including well-organised content, as well as productive use of tech. Crucially, researchers found that courses with clear expectations and a solid structure were not only most likely to engage students in the learning process but were also closely linked to learner satisfaction and perceived outcomes.


3.      Optimise content delivery

Balancing synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities is a good way to ensure the best use of resources. Lectures and presentations can form part of a bank of effective asynchronous resources, freeing precious in-person time for case-method learning, group work or synthesis activities. Reimagining content delivery through a fresh lens could also unlock study options for marginalised groups, broadening access to a more diverse faculty. For students in different time zones, with individual learning preferences, social pressures, and technological constraints, embarking on their higher education journey on their own terms can be transformational.


4.      Leverage tech

It’s a strategy that depends on the quality of the technological tools and infrastructure that underpin delivery. Collaboration with experienced EdTech partners like HEP will ensure that online recruitment, retention, support and monitoring systems are optimal, and that crucial community and social frameworks are embedded at delivery platform level.


5.      Nurture community and culture

Remote study brings its own challenges. Students have left behind not only their lecture theatres and labs but also the shared spaces, clubs and societies that provide them with important social and cultural connections. Against this backdrop, maintaining motivation requires reassurance and support – and the firm belief that an exciting learning experience lies ahead. Providing opportunities for students to link up with peers, mentors and support groups locally and virtually gives students a better chance of success.


6.      Foster collaboration

Supporting students to collaborate (and facilitating this collaboration) will elevate the value of shared motivation above competition among their peers. Small-group activities, possibly centred around selective digital resources for remote learners, can evolve into more complex tasks and activities that encourage exploration, problem-solving and collaborative output, aligning with, and amplifying, learning outcomes.


7.      Cultivate mentors

Often left to chance, mentorship is a facility that should be incorporated more formally into a faculty’s purpose. Harness every opportunity to create proactive mentorship programmes – especially with regard to reaching non-traditional or at-risk groups – to support and guide students through academic and non-academic challenges. Mentors are particularly effective as part of blended and online provision, where traditional campus-based resources are in short supply.


8.      Promote reflection

Learning activities are more valuable if they’re linked to reflective practice. It’s a habit that helps individuals to develop greater self-awareness and independence – qualities that can be applied to real-world challenges. Through reflection, students become more aware, not just of what they have learned, but of who they have become on their learning journey. Activities that encourage active participation (without low-stakes entry opportunities for more hesitant students) can be delivered synchronously or asynchronously, with discussion forums to share ideas and outcomes.


9.      Encourage participation

Online courses can be delivered as part of a holistic hybrid or blended approach to learning that may include opportunities for field work or internships. Where these options are limited (perhaps due to geographical limitations), students can be invited to explore and create their own media and resources – video, audio, and pictures – to support learning and stimulate class discussions. These activities can introduce a valuable extra dimension that enrich programme content for all.


10.  Address the skills gap

However a curriculum is delivered, it should be aligned with the skills students need to succeed in their chosen field. A 2019 survey of HR leaders found that employers were finding it harder to close skills gaps in their organisations with graduate recruits. By collaborating more closely with employers, universities could more closely align curriculum with the in-demand skills that will help shape the future of work. This approach could also seed the internships and project opportunities that enrich the student experience.


Looking to the future

For universities, innovation in learning delivery has become more urgent than ever. While the campus remains a draw for many students, events of the last two years have shown that taking a learning path that’s less firmly moored to tradition can be equally valid and just as rewarding.


The most successful programmes – and, by extension, institutions – are likely to be those that effectively combine the best of both worlds, drawing on exemplary digital and in-person practices to create a learning experience that’s accessible to a much broader student body.


At an individual level, this will see universities sculpting a bespoke response that’s informed by their own imperatives. Most will be compelled to move to hybrid or blended learning models to maintain a viable student population in the short term. Some may pivot more fundamentally to prioritise intake from their local and national communities as international recruitment slows.


Only a lucky few will be free from financial pressures as endowments shrink and stock markets wobble: according to a 2020 study from consulting firm London Economics, UK universities faced a collective shortfall of circa £2.5 billion in 2021 due to plummeting student enrolment figures.


We already know that universities with advanced online provision were able to offer a more intuitive Covid-19 response from the start than those whose practices were more deeply rooted in place-based learning.


Today, one thing is certain: the interim measures put in place as faculties scrambled to move students online will no longer cut the mustard. University leaders need to embark on a more radical journey of innovation, aligning high-quality content with the technology necessary to optimise digital teaching and learning for an uncertain future.



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