Home | Opinion | Student engagement in the move to online and hybrid learning – opinion

Student engagement in the move to online and hybrid learning – opinion

It would be an understatement to say approaches to learning, and the needs of learners, have changed during the pandemic. Before COVID-19, there had already been a move towards improving the engagement of learners to match expectations within the digital landscape. 

However, movements towards online and blended learning have accelerated across institutions in the last 18 months. In particular the adoption of blended modalities (including hybrid: online students participating in face-to-face classes by means of synchronous technologies; and hyflex, a combination of hybrid and flexibility, where students may choose whether or not to attend synchronous sessions). Looking to the future, learning practices for most institutions are likely to be a variation of f2f, blended or online.    

This is making effective student engagement a bigger priority than ever. The rush to online in March 2020 and the on-off practices since have impacted traditional on-campus learners. This applies particularly to institutions and programs yet to fully resolve long-term hybrid practices and establish sustainable models. Post-pandemic worlds will require new and innovative approaches to ensuring students remain engaged.

TEQSA data indicates that many students, while speaking positively of the efforts of the academics who supported them, found the disruption to be challenging. This is echoed by secondary school students and the growing number of non-traditional learners in an increasingly lifelong learning world. These non-traditional learners have new aspirations and expectations to match their changed living and working practices.

At the same time, the foundations for providing student engagement have been shaken. Campuses designed before 2020 may have survived COVID protocols but are in many cases struggling to repurpose for a new hybrid normal. These foundations are exacerbated by the number of challenges that university leadership faces, such as overcoming the loss of international students, managing safe returns to campus, and managing a depleted workforce with varying degrees of skill in preparing students for either an online or blended world. As we move to the ‘new normal’, getting the foundations of the blended and online learning experience right will be paramount to retain and attract students.

In many ways, the current combination of circumstances represents a perfect storm for innovation and change. It is an excellent time for new partnerships to provide a stepping stone in buying time towards transformation to a new student-centred, student experience and student engagement-focused future. And it is a perfect time for innovation, experimentation, and radical redesign of programs, learning and student engagement practices.

Partnerships are becoming more prevalent to support future student needs and their engagement. Among online enabler partners that have grown and matured over the last decade, Online Education Services (OES) has proven to be instrumental in building the online capability of a number of Australian universities. It provides the scale, expertise, innovation, market insights and delivery frameworks to create a seamless student experience to amplify each university’s unique strengths. 

What OES and their partners have learnt is the importance of an unrelenting focus on the experience of learners. According to the most recent 2020 QILT data, undergraduates studying with Swinburne Online, (OES’s founding partner) have rated their quality of overall experience at 87 per cent. This result is 18 per cent above the national average for all study modes and 9 per cent above average for external study mode. This emphasis on ensuring the student experience is first and foremost is becoming increasingly relevant to all of our current and emerging learners’ needs. 

Wider partnerships are now becoming important to future student needs and their engagement. These reflect our sector moving further towards job-ready graduates and employability. Partnerships with SEEK allow OES to understand what skills are needed in the employment marketplace and to integrate them into program design delivered in online or hybrid settings. Overall, OES’s experience has been that a human-centered, quality-driven approach to online learning builds genuine connections and satisfaction amongst students. 

What are the lessons for other online program enablers, edtech providers and for all of our universities in seeking to replicate lessons from the OES experience? Providers to new learners of blended learning need to foster a culture that starts with a student engagement focus rather than the technology you need or want to use. Success and satisfaction of engaged students comes with how students experience your online and blended processes.

There is an increasing appetite to learn from user experience and customer experience practices of other service providers. Learner experience and digital transformation are now becoming staples in educators’ toolkits. The use of learners' personas and preferences offers specific potential for new approaches to build a fit-for-purpose future strategy for blended learning and how to get there. We have abundant evidence that blended and online learner engagement relies on the design of programs that takes an evidence-based approach to which elements work best for students. 

Recognising that digitally savvy students will want streamlined and personalised experiences, with support from new genres of specialist learning support, is a design starting point. It is a prerequisite for program, platform and learner engagement design for new blended models.

Where we see this all heading is towards trusted partnerships between universities, online program enablers, edtech and other service providers that focus on student engagement via blended or online delivery models. We expect student-focused models to become the basis for all online and on-campus experiences in a blended education future.

The shift from current day approaches from universities will call for radical thinking, leadership and practices. We need disruptive processes and practices to break the mould and move the dial on student engagement. Such processes have the potential to emerge from new open-minded approaches to a wide range of partnerships. And they can be triggered from radical hackathon-like processes and benefit from the skilled input of expert facilitators. 

These would typically involve in-house innovators working with edtech, online program enablers, industry or other partners. They are unlikely to emerge easily through committee-based, conventional in-house, course quality, course review, and teaching and learning improvement practices.  

Breakthrough processes, tried and tested in other sectors, can realise the new approaches to engagement and experiences, which our future learners now need. And they are an approach to improved student engagement traversed in the HEDx podcast recorded with the CEO of OES, Denice Pitt that you can access here.

Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx

Sue Kokonis, Executive Director Academic, OES

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