Student panel breaks down assumptions about online learning

15 Jun 2020
Students walking past UNSW sign

As higher education looks for fresh ideas to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, Education Focussed academics spoke to six UNSW students about their experiences with online learning and how they're adjusting to the ‘new normal’ of learning.

First year Renewable Energy and Finance student, Stanley Tanudjaja, transitioned to online study in March 2020 when in-person lectures at UNSW were cancelled in favour of online teaching, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“I want to return to campus, to the old normal. I miss the sense of community, the spontaneity, being surrounded by like-minded people, participating in campus events and student societies. It has been a significant adjustment,” he said.

In recent months, the higher education sector has faced unprecedented challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the onset of the crisis, UNSW has rapidly transitioned our courses to various remote delivery modes. While most academics have had to make some accommodations in their current courses, the pivot to remote course delivery has also been particularly challenging for our students.

During this rapid transition, it is easy to overlook the student voices, despite the students being directly affected by decisions made about their learning.

With that in mind, Education Focussed (EF) academic and Director of First Year Experience, Professor Richard Buckland and the EF team organised a Lunch & Learn session last month with a panel of students to explore the student experience of life and learning during Term 1.

Led by a panel of six students – a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate – the session attracted more than 60 academics across faculties. The audience on the day was incredibly engaged, with over 70 questions asked via Teams.

Associate Professor Louise Lutze-Mann, Director of EF Career Development said, “As challenging as last term was, it also provided opportunities for trialling new ways [of learning], some successful and some problematic. We decided that the best source of information about what worked and what didn’t is our students, so the EF team organised a panel discussion with them. The event offered an unparalleled opportunity to connect with students, and to reflect on our teaching for the new term.”

Six core themes emerged from the vibrant discussion.

Missing the old normal and a sense of community

As classes moved online causing anxiety for some, being homebound and having monotonous routines has led to struggles with self-regulation, keeping up with course content and feeling isolated from others.

“I think students are really looking forward to returning to campus in Terms 2 and 3,” said Sarah Beder, a postgraduate Public Relations and Advertising student who finished her course in Term 1.

“My hope is that students continue to get used to the new normal until that’s able to happen.”

The students reflected on how they are coping with feeling overwhelmed as they adapt to the new normal. Their experience with pre-recorded lectures in Term 1 reinforced the feelings of isolation. And while they value the flexibility that pre-recorded content gives them, students found streaming lectures live provided them with structure and consistency.

“I miss face-to-face lectures, and live lectures recapture that for me,” said Jena Zulueta who is currently doing her masters in international relations at UNSW.

First year computer science student, Jamal Hopwood echoes her sentiment.

“I prefer live lectures. They give me a sense of belonging and connection with my teachers and classmates. Pre-recorded lectures with a disembodied voice of the lecturer made me less motivated to attend the classes. I was left wondering whether the lecturer actually cared about my learning experience.”

Being present is more than having the camera turned on

A sense that their teachers are interested in their progress and present was important for the students. Building relationships online requires lecturers to have closer contact through more regular email communications, frequent feedback, and participation in online chats. Students appreciate every opportunity to practise and get feedback on their learning and understanding. But remote learning takes away the luxury of being able to ask questions and to immediately clarify their understanding of the course material.

“Someone actually listening really helps. I’ve had lecturers who were responsive to my emails despite not hosting live lectures,” said Emily McKay, a first-year student in chemical engineering.

When students can’t connect visually with their teachers, they don’t feel they can participate fully.

“If I see my lecturer show up on camera in every class or tutorial,” said Stanley, “it brings back that sense of focus and accountability home.”

Substance over style matters when it comes to content

Turns out, it is not always bad for students to see teachers struggling with the details. They identify with them, comforted by the fact it is a trying time for everyone. The lack of polish arguably felt more direct and more human.

“It is all about having a conversation, and less about a high production value,” said Sam Braham, who is pursuing a combined degree in Arts and Law.

“It’s perfectly fine if my lecturer teaches us on an iPad in the kitchen, with doors slamming in the background, because it feels so much more authentic.”

Students valued the opportunity for interactivity and having concepts explained properly over impeccable lecture recordings.

Consistency across platforms

In Term 1, the student panel had attended lectures via three platforms – Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Blackboard Collaborate. While some of the students found jumping across different platforms confusing at times, almost all of them agreed that navigating these tools did not make a difference as long as the lecturers knew what they were doing.

“If my teacher is bewildered by the digital tool, that worsens the learning experience for me,” said Sam.

Action speaks louder than voice

The panel agreed that they did not want to be lectured at, but rather have more student-to-student task-driven interactivity. They preferred assignments that involve higher order thinking that taps into different cognitive skills rather than just regurgitating what they had learnt over the course of the term.

With an overwhelming consensus, the students reiterated that they want to feel heard, and expect their teachers to be prepared, punctual and responsive.

A focus on gratitude

Despite the circumstances, gratitude was a recurring theme throughout the discussion with the students.

“I feel for our teachers who have had to change everything about their classes, particularly those who are so responsive to our emails, queries and needs,” Emily said.

Following the Q&A with the students, EF academics sat down with them to discuss how to address these issues for the future.

“It was an incredibly valuable panel discussion,” said Karin Watson, EF Champion and Senior Lecturer at UNSW Art & Design.

“The insights and feedback from the students were so useful, genuine and considered. It reminded me of how important incidental chats with students can be, rather than sticking to content or course related issues.

“I walked away from the meeting feeling overwhelmingly warm and motivated about teaching: just the tonic I needed before commencing Term 2.”

Professor Aaron Quigley, the new Head of School of Computer Science and Engineering added, “The enthusiasm, insights and careful reflection of the student panel on their learning is impressive. It makes me very happy to be part of UNSW.”

Along with the uncertainty of the current situation, comes an opportunity to engage with our students in different and deeper ways. The EF Lunch & Learn session made academics appreciate the importance of connecting with their students and incorporating reflections on Term 1 in their respective classes.

Wrapping up the session, Professor Buckland observed, “Yet again we were reminded of how resilient, adaptive and amazing UNSW students are. Isn’t it great to have this insight into what students actually value? As teachers, we now need to recognise how important a sense of connectedness and community is for them.”

To find out more about the session and to watch the recording, visit EF Central.