Blog

Students want blended learning, but we still have a long way to go

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by
Steve West

During the pandemic, universities and colleges showed resilience in adapting to uncertainties and changing contexts with the expansion of online learning.

Group of students smiling in corridor.

But this has since sparked debate around the quantity and quality of online learning, which became political when the UK government made clear its expectation that higher education institutions (HEIs) prioritise face-to-face teaching.

But what is it that students actually want, and are we listening?

Jisc’s annual digital experience insights survey of HE students provides valuable insights to start to unpick these questions: it is one of the largest data sets of the student experience, with more than 33,000 HE students from 41 institutions across the UK taking part in 2021/22.

Almost two years on from the pandemic, the survey shows student support for a combination of online and face-to-face learning.

Almost two years on from the pandemic, the survey shows student support for a combination of online and face-to-face learning. When asked how they would like to be taught:

  • 42% said mainly on site
  • 45% preferred a mix of on site and online
  • 13% wanted to be taught mainly online

The survey suggests that students perceive what is currently on offer as a good standard – 74% rated the quality of online learning on their course as above average. But we must also acknowledge that the definition of ‘good quality’ learning is wide-ranging.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of what students want, so we must involve students in the design of the educational experience and the technology to support it, embracing continuous co-creation at all levels with students as partners.

Only 37% of students in this year’s survey agreed they were given the chance to be involved in decisions about learning platforms. It needs to be higher.

I recognise we have some way to go as a sector, but as Jisc’s CEO Heidi Fraser-Krauss has advised, universities cannot risk under-investing in technology if they are to deliver a high-quality, digitally-enhanced blended learning experience.

Technology can only enable students to access their learning, as long as they have the access and devices to do so.

The sector also needs to deal with the continuing challenges that online study creates for some students: digital and data poverty have been around as long as the internet, but it took a pandemic to highlight the plight of a significant minority of disadvantaged students who don’t have access to the vital basics – suitable devices, a reliable internet connection, a safe and private place to work – and who cannot afford mobile data or broadband costs.

Institutions will need to consider the impact of the growing cost of living crisis in which some students are not able to travel to campus on a daily basis. Technology can only enable students to access their learning, as long as they have the access and devices to do so. The support universities provide for blended learning could be better; just over a third (35%) of respondents rated the overall support to learn effectively online as average or below.

The findings of Jisc's digital experience insights survey show that students see real benefits in universities continuing to innovate learning and teaching through online and digital technologies. The task now for the sector is to deliver this in a way that works for students.

About the author

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Steve West
Vice-chancellor, president and chief executive officer, University of the West of England