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Guest Post: ‘Freshers’ pre-COVID expectations will not be met – but their experiences could be richer’…by Sarah Knight

This year’s cohort of new students will observe social distancing and may face future lockdowns. It’s not what they signed up for. But if universities embrace digital, students can reap the benefits, says Sarah Knight.

Sarah Knight is head of data and digital capability at the education and technology not-for-profit, Jisc   

2020 has been quite a year. The impact of COVID-19 has been seismic, causing widespread distress and anxiety, and tipping many people’s lives upside down. That’s as true for students starting university this September as it is for anyone: from course delivery to living conditions and social interactions, their pre-COVID expectations will not be met – but their experiences could be richer, more supportive, and more flexible.

Meeting the needs of Industry 4.0

Used creatively, digital tools can not only help students come to terms with the new face of higher education, they can also bring additional benefits and opportunities. Digital teaching and learning enable students to access resources and engage with their education, wherever they are located, and digital platforms can help learners feel connected and involved.

Recognising that the workplace is evolving apace, this type of learning experience is now a segue into employment. Collaborating online is not just the realm of early pioneers anymore, it’s for everyone –workers and students alike.

Transformation, not translation

The challenge now is to go beyond the minimum; universities still face a steep learning curve if they are to fully realise the benefits of digital tools and technologies and deliver those to learners. It’s not about translation, shifting face-to-face methods into an online environment; it’s transformation, building digital into course design and the student experience.

To achieve that, institutions will have to stay close to their students, asking questions, listening to feedback, and rethinking approaches and support in response. But this happens at an institutional level, so what works for one university, or even for a specific course, won’t be right for all. As learners are invited onto campus this September, the universities that thrive will be those that offer a culture and environment that facilitates learning wherever students are based. That means considering equity of access.

An equitable experience

Now is the time for universities to look carefully at their digital offer, scrutinising how they can support students to have an equitable learning experience online compared to in person, and making sure that lectures and resources can be accessed and engaged with regardless of the student’s location. We can’t assume that all students, once they leave university grounds, have a secure place to study, access to the devices they need, and reliable wifi – or that they know how to use all the different technologies they’re now being asked to use in a way that will maximise their learning experience. In fact, 2019 research from the education and technology not-for-profit Jisc, shows that 18% of 14,525 HE students – 2,615 people – weren’t able to say they have access to reliable wifi. Updated data for 2020 will be published mid-September – and we expect it to support the idea that, as a sector, we need to move away from the assumption that all students are digitally enabled and digitally capable. Institutions can then evaluate where they are in this digital journey, and see how they can support students to join them as they make that change.

The year ahead

There’s no question that this is a challenging time for universities – especially those that were at the start of their digital journey when COVID-19 first hit the UK. That’s why Jisc created a toolkit to help universities and colleges support arriving students, and worked with the NUS to build a bench marking tool to help institutions build on their baseline offer to see what they can – and arguably should – aim for when delivering a high-quality digital experience. Only a handful of UK universities could honestly say they currently meet those benchmarks.

While we’ve seen impressive change in the past six months, we’ve also seen emergency measures, introduced at speed, as a ‘good enough’ sticking plaster solution. Universities are now looking at how to embed digital for the long term. There’s no going back. This is the time to shift forward, accepting that while the student experience has changed, it can be enhanced with digital technology.

The results of Jisc’s Digital Experience Insights student survey will be published mid-September

About Jisc

Jisc’s vision is for the UK to be the most digitally advanced education and research nation in the world. At its heart is the super-fast national research and education network, Janet, with built-in cyber security protection. Jisc also provides technology solutions for its members (colleges, universities and research centres) and customers (public sector bodies), helps members save time and money by negotiating sector-wide deals and provides advice and practical assistance on digital technology. Jisc is funded by the UK higher and further education and research funding bodies and member institutions. For more information, contact jess.moore@jisc.ac.uk, or call 07468 722 255