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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Student Support and Student Engagement at RIDE 2021


Written by
Clare Sansom and Daksha Patel

The fifteenth in the CODE’s acclaimed series of Research in Distance Education (RIDE) conferences was the first to be held online. It took place over three half-days in June 2021, with the overall theme of Learning through Disruption. Introducing the conference on the first of these half-days, Mary Stiasny, Pro-Vice Chancellor (International) at the University of London, commented that the theme reflected all the experiences in the last fifteen months as the COVID pandemic drove higher education online.  Linda Amrane-Cooper, head of the CODE, welcomed all delegates and thanked the conference co-chairs, Stylianos Hatzipanagos and Alan Tait and their hard-working committee.Before introducing the first keynote lecturer, Mary had one important announcement to make: the winner of the Roger Mills Prize for Innovation in Learning and Teaching. This year there had been four very strong nominations, and the panel had great difficulty selecting only one winner. They eventually chose the project by Sarah Sherman and Nancy Weitz from Bloomsbury Learning Exchange to develop flexible, open-source courses in digital skills awareness for staff and students.

Digital Disconnect: Educational Inequalities in a Digital Age

It has often been said that although we are all facing the same storm of the pandemic, we are not in the same boats. This is at least as true of our students as it is of the general population. It was therefore fitting that, with the first day’s programme centred on the student experience, the opening keynote lecturer took inequality as her theme. Ellen Helsper is Professor of Digital Inequalities at London School of Economics; during her long career, she has worked in educational settings from primary to higher education, and in teacher education.  Her fascinating lecture was titled ‘Digital Disconnect: Educational Inequalities in a Digital Age’.  

Watch a video of the Day 1 keynote presentation.

Ellen Helsper talking to camera

Ellen began her presentation – which drew on decades of work on digital, social and historical inequalities and on the results of international projects on youth skills and on inequality across generations – with a definition of digital literacy. Almost everyone will, to some extent, need to navigate the digital world: to use, or decide not to use, certain technologies, and to benefit from this use in their everyday life. ‘Socio-digital inequalities’ are the systematic differences in individuals’ opportunities and abilities to do this. 
It is important to distinguish between confidence and skills, and it is possible to have one without the other although confidence is more important when people first start using a technology. People’s access and attitudes to technology, which are largely dependent on their social context, determine their level of digital skills for both formal and informal learning. These in turn determine outcomes that may be measurable (e.g. gaining a qualification or a job) or more diffuse. 

It is possible to divide ‘digital skills’ into four categories: informing, evaluating, presenting and interacting. Schools in many European countries concentrate on the first two of these, and it is not surprising, therefore, that young people tend to do better in them. The second pair, however, arguably encompass those skills that are most critical in a pandemic age with so much communication online: about 40% of all young people accept that they struggle with their own behaviour online or with dealing with others’. As expected, young people from more privileged backgrounds gain more from formal learning, but, interestingly, the same is not true for informal learning. People from backgrounds that are historically disadvantages can learn more informally and can thrive, but only when they are able to access the technology. This must be made adaptable and accessible if all people, including those from historically deprived communities, are to take advantages of the opportunities that ICT brings without excluding others. We are all collectively tasked with creating a positive digital future.

Virna Rossi from Ravensbourne University in London responded to Ellen’s talk with a brief discussion of how these ideas can be applied in a higher education setting. Students experience many different forms of advantage and disadvantage and do so in different ways: she cited one example of female students in Pakistan whose only access to the Internet was in a military compound. We need to be sensitive to our students and try to understand their digital profiles and needs in a timely manner: where possible even before they arrive.

A brief final discussion highlighted the need for sensitivity to further types of disadvantage, including linguistic ones: with so much digital content available only in English, students without this will often struggle with other skills.

Students at the Heart of Design

Three parallel sessions on the first day of RIDE focused on how we can best support and engage our students throughout their learning. One of these, with the strapline Students at the Heart of Design, featured two fascinating presentations by respected educationalists: Virna Rossi, course leader of the postgraduate certificate in Creative Courses at Ravensbourne University, London and Nicola Byrom, psychology lecturer at King’s College London and founder of Student Minds. Both laid a strong emphasis on supporting student wellbeing, which has been more important than ever during this challenging year.

Watch a video of the 'Students at  the Heart of Design' session. 

Roots to Shoots, inclusive course design to support wellbeing

Virna began with an icebreaker, asking participants to select the face from a matrix of 24 that best matched their current mood, and was pleased to find that most chose happy faces. Then, following on from that title, she showed a cartoon diagram of a tree with nine roots and three branches. The roots represented nine principles of inclusive learning design, spelling out the word ‘inclusive’ as an acronym. Course design, she said, should be

  • Intentionally equitable, hospitable to all students and culturally responsive
  • Nurturing and supporting wellbeing
  • Co-created by students and other collaborative partners
  • Learned and informed by evidence-based research
  • User-friendly
  • Socially responsible
  • Integrative, connecting learning with work
  • Values-based
  • Ecological, addressing sustainability issues
Tree diagram of inclusive design principles

Virna argued that courses designed around these principles are better able to bear good fruit, and pointed to the three ‘branches’ of the tree, representing course setup and engagement, input and practice, and output and feedback respectively. Student wellbeing should be embedded in every part of a course, but this will take different forms as courses evolve. In many cases, this has meant from traditional to purely digital at the start of the pandemic, and now onward into a hybrid future.

Adapting pedagogy to support student mental health

This challenging year has perhaps disproportionately affected students. Nicola Byrom presented research into how pedagogy can be adapted to support their mental health.  She started with some disturbing statistics: even before the pandemic, surveys were showing that about 40% of university students under 24 would have some level of difficulty with their mental health. This had increased from around 34% in 2014 and is likely to be still higher now. Furthermore, interestingly, young people of similar ages who are not students seem less likely to report distress. She suggested that we are creating ‘pressure cookers’ for our young people, with those who stay in education being ‘strivers’ who push themselves to succeed so hard that it damages their wellbeing. 

Nicola Byrom speaking to camera

This implies that lecturers need to respond to this situation and increase our support for stressed and distressed students, but we are not employed or trained to be counsellors. Our skills and expertise are in teaching, so the question for us becomes: how can we improve our pedagogy so our teaching supports better student mental health? She suggested several areas in which we could focus and adapt our teaching in this respect:

  • Scaffolding our courses, so topics follow logically from each other and students are less likely to feel stranded
  • Stressing meaning and relevance to help students engage with the course material
  • Careful planning of staff and student workloads 
  • Critical alignment of courses

Equally importantly, we need to connect with our students and show them compassion, take time to build relationships with them and show that we care about their wellbeing. Arguably, the pandemic and the associated shift to digital has made these two more important than ever.

Students at the heart of community

Watch a video of the 'Students at the heart of community' session.

Students at the heart of learning

Watch a video of the 'Students at the heart of learning' session.

What do we know about how students learn at a distance? 

David Baume and Stephen Brown, Centre for Online and Distance Education 
Understanding student engagement in an online environment was explored across 4 University of London courses through a survey questionnaire, self-completed diaries and interviews. The researchers considered three key questions on engagement: 

  • How were student study hours comparing with programme expectations? 
  • How do students engage with different types of content? 
  • What role does peer interaction play in student learning? 

The findings from 650 students highlighted considerable variation in study time spent across courses, with some doing more than expected and others less than the expected. However, the central student sentiment was “too much content and not enough time”.

Student surrounded by books

There were clear indications that a level of strategic self-organisation was practiced by the most engaged students. Others (less engaged) took a position of “playful exploration” of online content towards their learning. Students found knowledge content resources (e.g textbooks) as the most useful content, over active learning processes such as reflective exercises. Individual learning was preferred over peer collaboration, contradicting existing evidence on active and collaborative modes of learning. In this study a passive pedagogical approach to learning was preferred by the students which is in conflict with course pedagogy based on active learning. The conclusion elaborated a need to guide students on active participation in distance learning and also on the potential of peer collaboration, rather than assuming that it will happen by design only.   Learners need help and reward to develop skills in active learning, and these conversations need to take place with them. 

Towards a framework for developing digital learning competences in higher education 

Mario Barahona Quesada, Universidad Estatal a Distancia (UNED), Costa Rica & Gina Patricia Suárez España, Universidad ECCI, Bogotá, Colombia 

The aim of this research was to look at the students’ self-perceived proficiency in digital learning and opinions about the level of technology available to them.

Mario Barahona Quesada speaking to camera

347 students were enrolled randomly at ECCI and UNED, equally distributed by gender. A detailed instrument using 100 items and Likert scales (1-5 from disagree to agree) was applied. A detailed analysis was undertaken to measure the scores. Men showed increasing scores on self-perceived skills to navigate the VLE, useability and accessibility, whereas women had higher scores in active learning, perception of institutional support, using tools to organise and plan and communicating virtually. Realtime interaction (synchronous) with teachers and peers scored the lowest for both groups, missing opportunities to learn actively with others.  

Interestingly, both presentations highlighted a similar need for supporting and guiding the active collaborative learning process in the online environment. 

Learning and Teaching Reimagined

An inspiring talk by Jonathan Baldwin, Managing Director (Higher Education) at Jisc concluded the first day’s presentations at RIDE 2021. Introducing Jonathan, CODE Fellow David Baume explained that his talk would present views of the future of higher education beyond the pandemic, including those captured through an extensive student survey.

Watch a video of the 'Learning and teaching re-imagined' session.

Jon Baldwin speaking to camera

Jon explained, mainly for the benefit of overseas delegates, that Jisc works with all UK higher education establishments to supply digital infrastructure (including the Joint Academic Network which runs all the domains) and to provide support and training. Between May and November 2020 it ran a project called Learning and Teaching Reimagined, aiming to understand how the pandemic has driven digital innovation forward and to explore ‘what the future looks like’ in the next few years and also by 2030. The project was steered by a group of 14 vice-chancellors and reached over 1000 stakeholders from a wide variety of backgrounds. 

In the short term, the project identified seven challenges that university leadership teams face as they steer their institutions out of the immediate crisis: embedding digital throughout institutional culture, investing in the long term as well as the short term, exploring new economic models, embracing blended learning and communicating its benefits, and responding to digital poverty and expanding digital skills. These led to nine recommendations for universities to take the digital revolution forward, focusing, in general terms, on forward planning, radical thinking and prioritising a blended approach. 
The challenges we all face can also be summarised under the three headings of ‘users’, ‘technology’ and ‘sectors’ (or institutions). Under the first heading, Jonathan explained that we need to think of ways to translate the ‘joy and serendipity’ seen in the best of real-world teaching onto the screen. The second covers rising expectations of what technology can do and the need for customisation and adaptations, and the third covers challenges of increasing diversity within and between institutions and the rapid rise of cybersecurity threats. 

But what do students think of their current experiences and, by implication, of these ambitious plans? Jon summarised some 20,000 responses to a student survey that had formed an important part of the Learning and Teaching Reimagined project. Not surprisingly, the range of experiences reported by such a large and diverse group included many both positive and negative points. In general, students liked recorded lectures and found them valuable, particularly as they were able to pause, rewind and repeat them as often as they liked. Recordings were particularly valued by students without English as a first language and by those with hearing difficulties. Live, interactive sessions, and breakout sessions for small groups were popular, and students greatly appreciated the time and trouble that so many staff had put into adapting face-to-face material for online delivery quickly at a very stressful time. Less positively, many students reported difficulties in accessing the material, in timetabling their work, in concentrating and handling what at times felt like an impossible volume of work, and with isolation and loneliness.

Finally, Jon answered the question ‘What can we do right now?’ with a string of recommendations for staff to enable them to get ‘the basics’ of digital provision right, and to offer interactivity and timely support and feedback. During a lively discussion, he praised the remarkable speed of 2020’s emergency digital pivot while urging all lecturers to do more than move slides and notes online. What we have learned, not least from our students, must enrich their experience as we move into the ‘new normal’ of blended provision.