Home | Opinion | Safeguarding students’ digital learning journeys and wellbeing in pandemic times

Safeguarding students’ digital learning journeys and wellbeing in pandemic times

I was in the UK visiting a number of university clients, as part of TechnologyOne’s Global Mobility Programme, when the coronavirus started to take hold, but soon had to head back to our headquarters in Brisbane, Australia, when the severity of the virus became clear in March.

The pandemic threw up different challenges for different antipodes, because it hit Australian and UK universities at different times during their academic year. In Australia the new university year had just started, while in the United Kingdom students saw their second semester end prematurely, ahead of the Easter break.

In Australia, institutions had to take a week or two off to get all their classes, content and curriculum available online. They also prioritised getting their employees safely home, and connected, to ensure they were able to help out students, before resuming their everyday business of teaching. In the UK, universities needed to rapidly re-engineer many of their courses, such as medicine or engineering, mid-flight so that they could still carry-on digitally as best as possible.

While it wasn’t the catalyst, it’s clear that Covid-19 has accelerated and amplified digital transformation in universities. Thankfully, a significant portion of institutions already have distance and online learning programmes and digital platforms in place for international students and adult learners. But the challenging has been supercharging it.

Maybe a bigger challenge for universities has been shifting their entire workforce and ways of working from on-campus to home, literally in days. As a provider of enterprise resource planning and student journey software, we saw a huge spike in academic institutions asking for help to shift to software-as-a-service technology, so staff can carry on running the university’s enrolment, finance, student care and human resources functions remotely from home.

Many universities had to adopt bespoke measures out of necessity and due to time pressures so they could stay afloat and get through their first semester in the new Covid lockdown world. But academia has been quick to embrace and share new learnings. These range from how best to run an admissions and enrolment programme online through to how to encourage student participation in a virtual teaching environment.

But what is starting to become clear is the new challenges digital and blended learning is creating for students and teaching staff.

Firstly, there’s a technology equity issue. We might all be in the same storm with Covid-19 but we’re not in the same boat. Education is normally a great leveller and it’s easy for all bright students to shine on campus. However, university students and staff coming from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have access to the same top of the range laptops, smartphones and connectivity as their more well-off peers.

Likewise, there’s also spatial disadvantages – it’s harder for students to study and think when confined to one small space, having to share with other family members or flatmates. If you live in a more remote or rural area, there is also potentially slower connectivity issues.

Secondly, the move to a more digital, remote teaching world is also throwing up new challenges around wellbeing, mental fatigue, cyber-bullying and the changing roles and responsibilities of the educator.

Until now, most universities’ pastoral care has been predominantly on-campus. They’ve been able to monitor student wellbeing through tutorials, attendance at lectures, access to university Wi-Fi and libraries, as well as attendance at extra-curricular clubs and societies. All these connections provide an insight into how engaged a student is likely to be. Coronavirus has led to students missing out on the exciting bustle of campus life, new friends and social interaction, in many cases, instead, being confined to their rooms, feeling increasingly isolated and lonely.

In terms of digital equality, universities have already begun to redesign courses with social inclusion in mind. The University of Edinburgh in Scotland, for example, has invested in laptops to loan out to students that need them, while designing courses to support both 'synchronous' or live learning and less broadband intensive 'asynchronous learning' that’s accessible at any time. Learning from pre-existing distance learning courses, the university has discovered it can help students structure their day more productively, and around other commitments, enabling them to playback lectures and access course notes and modules over and over again.

In Australia, the Australian Council of Online and Distance Education has been at the forefront of online teaching, and this period has seen a welcome sharing of best practices to help the education community.

Digital learning, done right, can bring many benefits and break down barriers. For instance, research shows that retention from online learning can be really high. This is creating more opportunities for those who can’t study full time, as well as new revenue streams, in the form of micro-courses, for cash strapped universities.

But ensuring wellbeing is a much newer and harder challenge. The meteoric rise of social media means there’s ever more things competing for your attention. Some of it can be very helpful, but other parts can be potentially unsettling, even dangerous.

The growing levels of radicalisation, sexism, racism, trolling and bullying seen online, especially against women, people with disability, ethnically diverse students, is worrying. It’s an issue that tertiary education is very conscious of, alongside the need to continually invest in monitoring and providing pastoral support, albeit through different channels.

Equally, technology providers play a very important and key role in tackling these problems. Social media companies use algorithms to serve up commercially profitable content, but those very same digital analytics tools should also be used for the greater good.

I’ve been fortunate to hold the post of chief information officer at a number of leading universities across Australia, and it’s clear that institutions have access to hundreds of different digital applications and data sources that with appropriate and responsible use can provide valuable insights into student (and staff) wellbeing.

Technology partners must now work even more closely with educational institutions to combine technological innovation with education’s knowledge of teaching and learning, so we can collaborate and enhance student learning experiences. By working together and sharing insight we will be better positioned to create healthier and safer digital learning spaces.

Peter Nikoletatos is group industry director of education at TechnologyOne.

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