Development of the digital environment is one of the big ticket items on your college or university’s budget sheet, so you need to know how effective that investment is.
Is it having a positive impact on students’ learning and their experience of digital technology? Could it be better spent?
Study results and report
Our student digital experience tracker uncovers students’ experience of digital and captures their thoughts in their own words. Our report from the 2017 tracker study offers insights that participating organisations are using to inform their future investment.
Andy Jaffray, head of the office for digital learning at Ulster University, told us:
“I cannot over-emphasise how much more credibly these results are perceived by senior stakeholders in comparison to local surveys. The tracker has exceeded my expectations in terms of benefits and I have already cherry-picked aspects for business cases and papers.”
The tracker asked students in further education (FE), higher education (HE), adult and community learning (ACL) and skills as well as online learners about their digital experiences. We received responses from 22,593 learners.
Access to wifi for all
Several of the questions explored the digital environment and students’ access to digital services in the places where they usually learn.
One thing that we discovered is that only 69% of FE students have reliable access to wifi compared with 80% in HE, 90% in ACL and skills and 96% of online learners. Not surprisingly this is a big frustration.
Comments from learners included:
“If everything is going digital we need better wifi”
"[Institutions should] have reliable wifi and computers that work. The majority of college desktops take five minutes to log in and can’t handle basic tasks such as three browser tabs open at once”
“I think wifi should be […] equal across the campus”
Digital equipment provision
The study also showed that even those students who like to use their own digital equipment in their learning still expect their organisation to provide devices for their use, especially printers but also desktop computers and a range of other devices.
We found that 65.5% of HE students use institutional desktop computers and 62.9% use institutional printers; students stressed that this is really important to them and they want to:
“Have more computers available”
“Have access to computers in lesson time”
“Have faster computers”
We need to do more research on this. Students often want to use their own devices but they do still want to access institutional devices on campus. For one thing, their own devices may not have the necessary software and then there are other students who won’t have personal devices.
It’s important that their colleges, universities or learning providers can offer everyone the same experience and the same opportunities.
It’s also very important that IT support staff are involved in this evolving area so they can understand the range of devices being used and line up the right kinds of support. The study has opened up a dialogue that will be really useful in ensuring that this support can be put in place.
Digital activities - for better and for worse
The tracker looked at how often learners complete digital activities on their course and what kinds of activities these are. It asked which digital activities learners feel positive about as well as the ones they don’t like.
We found that the majority value digital technologies for the flexibility and convenience they offer.
Over 90% of all the students have access to online course materials; 70% in HE and FE say digital technologies help them to learn more independently and enable them to fit learning into their lives better.
80% of HE (62% of FE) respondents say they like the convenience of submitting their assignments electronically.
Collaboration: yet to reach full potential
Far fewer said they valued the collaborative possibilities. Only 50% said they felt more connected to others when they used digital tools and only 40% claim to enjoy using the collaborative features of their virtual learning environment (VLE):
"I haven’t ever done a course digital activity other than read articles online”
“I don’t like digital activity. I don’t believe in it”
This is an area where we uncovered some real opportunities that are being missed.
If you read the report you’ll see that students happily find information online and produce work in digital formats but it would be valuable to create more interactive opportunities in lectures, for example, with polling tools to encourage students to listen actively.
Polling can help them formulate their thoughts and it can give lecturers a heads-up when there’s an aspect of the lecture where students are struggling. We’ve got some really strong case studies that show how valuable this approach can be and a number of comments we’ve recorded in the report echo this:
“Using [the] responseware polling app in lectures is really useful, more lectures should use it as it means you actually try to work it out...”
“The polling device questionnaire at the end of practicals is quite fun and makes sure you pay attention"
Gaming and simulations are also developing into useful learning tools for some disciplines that require visualisations, such as healthcare and engineering.
Provision of digital skills
We included some questions to find out what students understand about how digital technologies can support them in their learning and how digital capabilities will help them in their life after study. Where do they go for help with their digital skills and do they acknowledge that they may need help with this?
We found that 46% of learners in FE, ACL and skills go to their tutor first for help and advice, while HE learners mostly look online first.
Across all groups, informal support from friends and family is collectively most common and relatively few search out specialist support staff in the first instance.
Support, advice and guidance is often held across lots of different places in an organisation but we found that many students are unsure about where to access it. What’s more concerning, a significant proportion said they weren’t sure what skills they’d need for their course or for their career afterwards.
So there’s some development work needed here. It’s really important to set out expectations right from the start - explain to students what skills they’ll need during the course, how they can acquire them and the value that they can expect to get from having these skills in terms of employability in their future careers.
Students' influence on their digital learning experience
We also asked students whether they felt their college or university involves them as change agents in developing the digital environment. 35% of HE and 44% of FE students agreed that they were.
We’ve done a great deal of work on developing students as change agents and showing the benefits that working in partnership brings. Students contribute creativity, enthusiasm and a fresh perspective on how technology can enhance their learning. Students develop their own digital capabilities together with a host of other skills that enable them to get more out of their learning and make them employable.
It’s been good to see how colleges and universities involved with this year’s study have harnessed the enthusiasm of their students to champion the tracker and get their peers to take part. Students have also worked with staff to analyse the results and suggest ways in which the findings can be taken forward.
We’re continuing to analyse the tracker data and especially the large volumes of free text comments to make sure we capture their richness. We’ll be producing a series of briefings including those targeted at the particular interests of IT, library and other relevant staff groups so that they can come together to develop better informed institutional digital strategies.
We’ll start the next run of the student digital experience tracker in the latter half of 2017 and produce a fresh report in 2018 so that we can track the changes in the digital experiences of students.
How to get involved
If you’d like your organisation to take part, sign up for the 2018 student digital experience tracker. You can also join our tracker mailing list.
Join the conversation on Twitter using the #digitalstudent hashtag.