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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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The future of work: how universities can prepare students for an uncertain future
More people than ever are going to university. In the UK, well over a third of all 18-year-olds (37.8 percent) enrolled on a full-time undergraduate course last year, according to UCAS. And, while some students are drawn to higher education to increase their academic knowledge and enjoy the university experience, most will also be looking to improve their employment and earning prospects. Government figures for 2020 show a graduate employment rate of 86.4 percent, with median graduate earnings standing at £35,000 (£9,500 more than their non-graduate counterparts).
Creating a rich social and cultural experience for online degree learners
Much of the discussion around the recent global shift from campus-based to remote-learning models has centred on the quality of online programmes of study – more particularly on how universities can effectively motivate, support, and assess individuals as part of a dispersed student population.
Breaking the bias: addressing the higher education gender pay gap
As participation continues to widen in the UK’s higher education sector with increasing numbers of applications from previously underrepresented sectors, many gender-based anomalies remain. For example, while women are much more likely to go to university than men (as well as to complete their studies and to achieve a good degree), figures show that women graduates cede their professional advantage in a matter of months.
EdTech: How technology is empowering universities to deliver high-quality online programmes
When universities were compelled to pivot from providing primarily campus-based programmes of study to delivering remote-first instruction, teachers and students alike found themselves navigating systems largely designed to deliver a facsimile of the traditional classroom experience, relayed via videoconferencing and other related connectivity tools.
Successful strategies for designing and delivering high-quality online learning
As demand grows for online learning options that are as comprehensive and effective as their campus-based counterparts, forward-thinking higher education organisations are exploring strategies that will help them deliver high-quality, full-featured programmes of study in remote, blended and hybrid formats.
The great unbundling: diminishing or democratising higher education?
Back in 2011, academic eyebrows were raised when news of a ‘no-frills’ higher-education path in an offshoot of Coventry University emerged, offering degree-level qualifications for around half the price of traditional universities. Students at the Coventry University College (CUC) were promised modular study routes in a variety of professional programmes, with part-time, full-time, and accelerated options, as well as the opportunity to pay in instalments.
Taking the lead: tackling the challenges of moving campus-based courses online
Events of the last two years have heralded unprecedented developments in the higher-education sector, forcing organisations to transition to remote learning at a highly accelerated pace.
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.
University career services: A critical tool in a competitive climate
It’s a tricky time for graduates. As class-of-2021 graduates collide and compete with their 2020 peers, who lost out due to the pandemic-induced suspension of graduate programmes, fewer opportunities are being spread even more thinly across a bumper crop of applicants in super-competitive jobs market – with predictably diminishing returns.
How online learning can support a more inclusive approach to higher education
The challenges presented by the pandemic have prompted a sector-wide re-think of higher-education provision in a radically changed world. It’s also sparked fresh discussions on how universities and other institutions can use what they’ve learned over the past eighteen months to deliver more assertively on access and participation and to accelerate recovery.
Can online education help plug the global skills gap?
Employment rates have been hitting the headlines recently, as businesses everywhere struggle to recruit staff in a number of key areas.
What’s driving universities to go online?
The pandemic pushed distance learning into the mainstream as lockdown shuttered school and college campuses all over the world in spring 2020. Once the province of a relatively small cohort of specialist organisations, online study became the de-facto option for millions of students almost overnight.