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Commentary Article March 31st, 2021
Education • Legitimacy • Innovation

Want to improve digital teaching and learning in universities? Start by listening to students

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.@MichaelBarber9 & Lara Bird from @officestudents share examples of effective #studentpartnership in action & encourage this way of working across the higher education sector

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From @solentuni to @ulsu_education & @eddiged, universities have been partnering w/ students to co-create their learning to address the challenges presented by #COVID19

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There are 6 actions universities & colleges can do to ensure the next academic year will put the best interests of students first. Read @MichaelBarber9 & Lara Bird from @officestudents article to learn more

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Partnering for Learning

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There’s a saying you hear a lot at the Office for Students, that ‘students are experts in their own experience’. That, perhaps, has never been as important as in the past year, when students have been learning in uniquely challenging circumstances, and most have been experiencing digital teaching and learning for the first time. 

The pace of this change was staggering. According to our polling, conducted with YouGov, 58 per cent of students and 47 per cent of teaching staff said they had no experience of digital teaching and learning before the pandemic. By December 2020, 92 per cent of students reported that they were learning either fully or mostly online.

In ‘Gravity assist: propelling higher education towards a brighter future’, we distil the learning from this transformational period, and give recommendations that will help universities and colleges to dramatically improve online teaching, potentially for generations to come. As they embark on translating the learning from this period into longer term plans, effectively engaging with students will be a powerful tool for increasing their chances of success.  

Our polling also highlighted room for immediate improvement. In November 2020, only around half of all students we polled had been asked for feedback on the online learning they had received in that academic year. This figure was even lower (37 percent) for postgraduate students. 

The idea of partnering with students has often been talked about with reference to involving students in the design of their learning. While this is undoubtedly important, this review argues that a partnership approach should be extended to other areas of higher education too. Our review includes a six-part model that establishes the key components for successfully delivering online teaching and learning, and an important thread that runs through all six components is the need to work with students as partners. 

For example, to ‘harness technology effectively’ universities and colleges need to ensure that students are involved in decisions about the procurement of technology tools and platforms. That could mean asking student representatives to road-test and provide feedback on new tools before they are rolled out across campus. Similarly, to ‘ensure digital access’, universities and colleges need to work with students who have digital access challenges on an individual basis to problem-solve these issues.

Working with students as partners has a range of possible benefits for students and staff. For example, 95% of students surveyed at Birmingham City University said they felt a greater sense of belonging and were more motivated to study after being involved in student partnership activities. 

From a global perspective, involving students in decisions and processes related to their learning could have wider benefits for society. A 2020 UNESCO report argued that giving students a ‘leading voice in designing the learning opportunities and learning communities they return to when school reopens’ could help to strengthen the civic engagement of young people more widely.

However, in order for the benefits of these partnerships to be realised, evidence suggests that students need to be fully integrated into the process; students should be part of change implementation rather than feeling that their role is restricted solely to that of an adviser.

Collaboration during the pandemic?

The rapid shift to digital delivery over the past year has shone new light on the value of robust student partnership and iterative, feedback-informed improvements. 

One part of this is that the unique circumstances triggered changes in staff-student relations that look set to last for the longer term. Professor Neil Morris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Digital Transformation at the University of Leeds told us that:

There was really good evidence of engagement with students at that time [during the first lockdown] and the relationship between staff and students became more equal and balanced. It was a levelling moment for everyone, which will hopefully have a lasting impact.

In the call for evidence and in-depth interviews we conducted for the review, we heard several impressive examples of universities and colleges partnering with students to address the challenges presented by the pandemic: 

  • Solent University created a team of students (employed on a part-time basis) to review how accessible and inclusive the modules being designed were. Over the course of the summer holidays, the team reviewed 105 modules. The system used was simple yet effective: for each module students recorded three strengths, three weaknesses, and three recommendations to improve the accessibility, inclusivity, and usability of the module.

  • The University of Lincoln worked with students to create a panel devoted to reviewing the teaching and learning experience. Students met with teaching staff to give feedback on issues such as the accessibility of digital resources. Georgia Petts, Vice President for Education at the University of Lincoln Students’ Union, spoke about the benefits this approach has had for the students involved:

Giving students the opportunity to feed back into proposals directly impacts their teaching and learning environment and empowers them to work with their academic staff members.

In some universities and colleges, partnering with students to co-create their learning was already embedded before the pandemic. For example, we heard about how tutors on the University of Edinburgh’s Msc Digital Education programme work with students to devise the topic and mode of their assessment. As well as the standard assessment criteria, students can also develop their own criteria, in line with the mode of assessment they have developed. This often leads to highly creative approaches, ranging from illustrated web essays to digital games.

What happens next? 

The above examples demonstrate effective student partnership in action. However, more work needs to be done to embed this way of working across the higher education sector, and into other aspects of the way that universities and colleges operate.

Beyond this, we are asking universities and colleges to work with students to implement our checklist of six actions for 2021-22  before the start of the next academic year. 

The six actions are: 

  • Assess students’ digital access on a one-to-one basis and address issues before learning is lost

  • Inform students what digital skills they will need

  • Involve students in designing teaching and learning 

  • Equip staff with the right skills and resources

  • Make the digital environment safe for all students

  • Plan how you will seize the opportunity for the longer-term

Working with students as partners can help universities and colleges to ensure that as they navigate this period of change and transformation, they do so in a way that puts the best interests of students at the centre of this process.

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Written by:

Sir Michael Barber Founder & Chairman, Delivery Associates
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Lara Bird Strategic Policy Adviser, Office for Students
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