Following on from recent findings of digital experience insights surveys of over 65,600 learners and students, a new report by Jisc reveals much more about the impact of the pandemic on those who had to teach during such unprecedented times.
Jisc’s 2020/21 latest digital experience insights survey findings look at the experiences of over 6,500 educators at a time of national lockdown and report on their perceptions, highlighting both the benefits and challenges of online teaching.
What is clear is many people’s perceptions and understandings of the power of digital transformation have changed, and there are many lessons we can learn from the experience.
Scale and pace of change
Online learning is of course not a new concept. Many universities and colleges have been developing new practices for decades. However, it was the scale and pace of the shift to mass online learning that was the key difference and the fact that all staff needed to embrace it, regardless of prior experience.
Having to learn how to facilitate learning, teaching and assessment in an online environment meant upskilling for some. This, combined with the need to troubleshoot their own technical problems as well as those of their students, while continuing to deliver high-class teaching, was challenging and pushed some staff outside of their comfort zones.
When talking about their digital experiences, many staff described their concerns for students, which may explain why most went over and above for them to ensure learning continued. But this also added to their anxieties and impacted their well-being. So much so that 65% of FE and 73% of HE staff felt that facilitating online learning had added significant new stress to their workload.
High quality online digital learning
Despite these concerns, most teaching staff rated the quality of the online digital learning that their courses provided as above average – a high satisfaction rating, especially considering the difficulties some had experienced.
Also, 50% of FE and 66% of HE staff said they had received support to teach online, and the numbers of those who said they had support for innovation in digital teaching and learning is higher than in previous years.
Problems experienced when teaching online
Unsurprisingly, there were technical and access issues, both for staff themselves and those that affected their teaching practices. Over 80% agreed that online teaching had created technical challenges, with 60% of teaching staff encountering one or more problems when teaching online and almost a fifth experiencing three or more.
Typical problems included not having good wifi connectivity, a suitable computer device, a safe and private place to work, access to online platforms and services, or specialist software.
A significant majority of staff said that teaching online changed their role as a teacher. They felt they were trying to perform two roles at once – delivering teaching whilst trying to provide technical support for learners to avoid disruption in live sessions.
Students experiencing similar problems meant that for teaching staff, their problems were not just compounded but amplified. This required a level of confidence that not all staff had.
For some, the sudden move to online teaching presented welcome opportunities to rethink more traditional approaches and many welcomed the opening up of new channels of communication with students. However, determining the right blend of teaching is an art that requires support, encouragement, collaboration across university stakeholder groups and active communities of practice.
Moving up a level
Most colleges and universities already have staff development support options in place with learning technologists and e-learning professionals who have been working with individuals and teams for many years.
The difference now is that this is an immediate concern to all teaching staff rather than just the innovators. When 70% of FE and 60% of HE students turn to their lecturers or tutors for help with online learning, the need for teaching staff to be confident to a higher level in aspects of pedagogic design, specifically for online learning, is paramount. This is equally the case with managing online collaborative activities and guiding students to appropriate sources of support without disrupting a session.
The key to achieving this is an understanding of the digital needs and ambitions of teaching staff. And yet, only 30% of FE and 15% of HE teaching staff agreed they had an assessment of their digital skills and training needs.
Listening to and working with teaching staff
Just as the Office for Students Gravity assist report called for organisations to work in partnership with students, teachers too are key stakeholders who need to be involved and consulted.
Just 38% of FE and 25% of HE teaching staff said they had an opportunity to be involved in decisions about online learning. This is more than had responded positively to a similar question asked in 2020, so a positive sign of a growing awareness of the benefits of involving all stakeholders and hearing their voices.
Looking to the future
The survey findings recommend collaboration between the FE and HE sector with both Jisc and the government to address four key areas as universities and colleges seek to learn from the pandemic and embrace digital transformation:
- Getting the infrastructure right and providing equitable access to technology is vital if online teaching and learning is to succeed. This includes devices, wifi, readily available technical support, and reliable well-structured systems and platforms
- Support to teach and assess online needs to include pedagogical, technical and peer support. Initial assessment will help to establish starting points, identify common areas of need and excellence, and inform staff development resources
- Providing educators with physical and mental health support. Staff experienced wellbeing issues related to changing practices, technical challenges, physical wellbeing, isolation and loneliness – and were concerned about how their students were managing similar challenges
- Listening to, and working with, teaching staff as key partners in bringing the best that digital can offer to their teaching practices
These four target areas build on previous reports by Jisc on shaping the digital future of FE and skills and on the future of learning and teaching in higher education - both of which identified sector-wide challenges as well as making a series of recommendations, including the need for investment in learning and teaching infrastructure, expansion of the digital capabilities of staff and a co-ordinated response to digital poverty.
Undoubtedly, there is more to be done to address the issues this last year and a half has revealed. However, surveys like the digital experience insights series are throwing fresh light on the challenges affecting staff and students as well as providing data that will help individual colleges and universities to move forward, become stronger and be more inclusive.
Find out more
Read the teaching staff digital experience insights surveys 2020/21:
Read the learner and student digital experience insights surveys 2020/21:
Learn more about digital experience insights surveys.
Our 2021/22 digital experience insights surveys are now open. If you would like to find out more about the digital experience of your students, teaching staff, professional services staff and researchers, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.