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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Flexible learning in uncertain times 2: The student experience


Written by
Dr Clare Sansom, CDE Fellow

The second of the Centre for Online and Distance Education’s webinars for staff at the Recognised Teaching Centres focused on the student experience.

Introduced by the head of the CODE, Dr Linda Amrane-Cooper, it included presentations by CODE Fellow Dr David Baume and three senior University of London staff members with direct responsibility for students’ experiences:

  • Hifzah Tariq, Programme Officer
  • Gerry Coyle, Collection Development Librarian at the University of London Online Library
  • Jo Harris, Associate Director of Student Experience.

David explained that the steps in the journey that students take through any higher education institution are common to all students and courses:

  1. Discovery
  2. Inquiry and advice
  3. Application, registration and administration
  4. Enrolment and orientation
  5. Study
  6. Information and support
  7. Feedback
  8. Assessment
  9. Re-assessment and re-enrolment
  10. Graduation
  11. ‘Alumni-hood’

But some may have changed during the pandemic, and we need to consider how students experience them digitally as well as whether new steps need to be added. Some of the trends that the pandemic has exacerbated and accelerated were already happening pre-pandemic; these questions would have had to be asked sooner or later, but now have much greater urgency.

Before describing the eleven steps on a typical student journey, David asked those of us from the RTCs to think of them with reference to both the University of London and our own institutions. He cited a few examples of questions we need to ask about the new reality of different steps in the journey. At the beginning of the journey, how do students find us – the University as well as its institutions – if there are no traditional ‘open evenings’ and it is far harder to simply walk in from the street? Where are our online prospectuses and guides, and how will students find them? And at the end of the journey, how can we celebrate student success without conventional graduation ceremonies, and what does this mean for students’ concept of themselves as our graduates? At least one institution is holding online ceremonies featuring robot student avatars!

One question raised during a lively discussion on the student journey was whether some steps may need more support. In his answer, however, David focused more on the complete pathway: “It’s a weird world for students out there”, and staff have to be sensitive and look out for questions from students at any stage. He suggested that we might even come to know our students better than ever before, which would yield dividends once the pandemic has passed into history.

Hifzah Tariq focused on University of London student advice and support. The advice centre, now essentially online given that  drop-in centres have largely closed, receives over 120,000 queries each year. As might be expected from these numbers, many queries are very similar, and the questions and answers have been condensed into FAQs. Advice centre staff manage this large volume of queries by dividing them into four basic types:

  • Academic, relating to key curricular concepts
  • Technical, relating to the systems that they need to use for, for example, registration; access to course material, and submitting assignments
  • Procedural, relating to the University’s and the teaching centres’ regulations, and, thus, differing between RTCs even for students on the same courses
  • Miscellaneous, or anything that is not easily classified as one of the first three.

Hifzah then listed seven steps to follow in running an advice service that will benefit all students, whatever mode they choose (or are required to use) for their studies:

  1. Make it obvious what communication channels are available, which are preferred in different circumstances, and when they change 
  2. Know your centre’s regulations and those of the University of London thoroughly
  3. Put all procedures into clear, simple English
  4. Acknowledge that ‘life happens’ and students’ circumstances will keep changing, particularly during the pandemic
  5. Create templates for students to follow for specific technical tasks, with screenshots where appropriate
  6. Talk to colleagues about the queries they are receiving, as those that come up most often may reveal problems or unclear instructions. Use information about these queries to generate FAQ lists.
  7. Don’t assume that all students are digital natives!

Participants’ questions covered issues surrounding the replacement of the informal ‘drop-in’ visits to advice centres, which students find particularly valuable. Hifzah advised us to make sure that all online information is accessible and, where relevant, available in different formats: some questions can be answered better by video than by text, and some students will always find visual formats easier to understand.

Gerry Coyle and his colleagues in the UoL Online Library curate a collection of over 100 million digital items including e-books, journal articles, magazines, dissertations and law reports. These are made available to all students, not just those at the RTCs, complementing excellent local libraries. There is a dedicated UoL librarian for each programme of study and colleagues at RTCs are encouraged to promote use of the Online Library by their students. This library is, of course, in a fortunate position in the Covid crisis as its collections are all online, so it has faced little disruption. In fact there has been an increase in use as students have lost access to local library facilities.  Students at the RTCs are generally happy with the level of support that their library provides, with a 73% favourability rating recorded in the most recent survey. Increasing the range of e-books available has gone down well with students; the library uses three main e-book providers including Proquest

Answering a participant in Singapore, Gerry explained that most questions arrive at the library by email, and students rarely use the phone. Other questions covered ATHENS access, which should be available for all, and differences between staff and student login processes to access library resources.

The final speaker, Jo Harris, described online resources available to support students through their journey, covering topics such as induction and ‘onboarding’ (the process of empowering new students to become active members of their learning community); community building, wellbeing and emotional support, and employability. All such resources have one thing in common: their developers value the student voice, and seek student input on updates and new features. The online induction to the University has been extended and now includes a virtual tour of Senate House.

Mental health, and student wellbeing more generally, has moved up the priority list as it has become more acceptable for students to open up about these problems, Support on this is more important than ever in the age of Covid-19. Students of the University of London Worldwide now have access to the TalkCampus app, which provides them with online mental health support from their peer group. The trained student volunteers come from many countries and speak many languages. Any potentially serious issues are passed to professional staff. 

This year, the University has a new dedicated student VLE for supporting skills development and career planning, which can be viewed in the Moodle app. Its careers section includes CV writing tools, self-reflection exercises and interview support, all designed to help students work out exactly where they would like to be and give them the information and skills they need to get there. Very recently, too, students have been offered ‘virtual internships’ with high-value organisations such as Amazon and PWC. These are proving very popular.

The final question and answer session highlighted a strong interest in wellbeing resources and a hope that similar ones can be made available for staff as well as students: a suggestion, perhaps, of the psychological toll that the pandemic can take of us all.

But as David said in his final summary, an astonishing range of excellent services is already available to help us support the students of 2020-21 through their strange new journeys.

View the webinar recording