Over the last few years, the technology-enhanced learning (TEL) community has made the student digital experience a central concern.
Of course we still worry about getting the institutional systems and infrastructure right, but we know that students are using a vast range of tools – including their own devices and services – and that it's how they use these tools that matters.
Now with the digital student project we have had a chance to look squarely at how the student experience is changing. As well as incoming expectations, Dave White and I reviewed studies of how students feel about their digital experience – about their course of study and about the digital environment more generally. And we asked how well that experience was preparing them for success in the world beyond.
What we discovered
As we imagined, arriving students' expectations vary a great deal. School, national culture, and family background play a part, along with the subjects that they choose to study. A few have very limited experience of ICT at all. But some expectations seem to be widespread:
- robust and ubiquitous Wi-Fi across campus locations
- easily to connect their own devices to the university network, and access personal/social web services
- continued access to institutional devices, especially desktop computers with relevant software for their use
Beyond these we saw a more varied picture. Students find different ways of working with technology. They need a flexible environment that lets them experiment, learn from each other, and create their own blend. But many of their most valued experiences – specialised skills such as design, data analysis, reference management and journal searches – are formally learned as part of the curriculum. This means that the confidence of teaching staff has a strong impact on students' satisfaction with the use of technology.
So general expectations are rising, but students are still unclear about how the technologies they use at university can help them to succeed. Under the new co-design approach, Jisc asked us to explore this challenge through a consultation process with live events and an ongoing blog. Several hundred key stakeholders have taken part: heads of library, estates, ICT, learning and teaching, those responsible for the student experience, and digital and media services. Students have been involved in all our events.
As we near the end of that process, I think several themes have emerged.
Students need to understand the role of technology more clearly
That is, the specialised role it plays in learning beyond school, and in the subject they have chosen to study. Yes, institutions need to listen to what students want, but this should be an ongoing dialogue. After all, students don't know what is going to be transformative for them until they are fully engaged in their course, and sometimes not for a while after that.
A two-way discussion about technology – what it means in an academic context, how it is changing disciplines and professions, what students can bring and what they uniquely can take from HE – is challenging. But it is needed if students are to realise the opportunities available.
Spaces and places of learning
Every student I have spoken to in the last few years has asked me to take this point away – that they don't want technology to be a substitute for 'the real people, in the same place, learning together'. This is one reason why 'bring your own' doesn't make it OK to suddenly lose cluster computing, IT labs or shared printers.
In practical terms, fixed computing provision may be the only place students can reliably get access to the software they need, or collaborate on a shared project. Some still don't have their own device, or the confidence to use it on their own. But beyond these practical concerns, ICT provision is an aspect of the university-as-place that students are reluctant to give up.
Affiliation and belonging
A related concern students have is being pushed too fast towards the public spaces of the open web, in the name of borderless classrooms or third space learning. They understand that this is somewhere they need to develop a presence, but they also see university as safe space where they can play and fail, try out new ways of expressing themselves and new identities. This could be seen as part of a more general need for affiliation and belonging, which is increasingly played out in digital as well as physical spaces.
At key points in the student journey – pre-induction, on placements and years abroad, between academic years, and on graduation – their relationship with the institution is a virtual one. Digital services are critical to establishing and maintaining a sense of belonging across these spaces. And service providers have to find a balance between branding their offer clearly, and blending with students' own preferred services.
Being involved in development
Finally, students are keen to be involved in developing the digital environment. This might mean contributing to policies that support positive digital behaviours, co-creating content, or helping to find solutions to issues in the digital environment. The Jisc Summer of Student Innovation projects have shown that students can build apps on institutional data services that are effective, economical, and meet real needs.
At all levels, we need students to co-construct their digital environment, rather than just being consulted about it. Their engagement helps to develop resilient individuals, but more to the point it produces solutions that are better for everyone. The Jisc Change Agent Network supports students working in partnership with staff on technology related change projects and is facilitating the sharing of best practice across both further and higher education.
Find out more
Read more about the phase one findings from our digital student study in the students’ expectations and experiences of the digital environment executive summary and the more detailed literature review.