The secret to delivering a better higher education experience? Involve students every step of the way

Student panel members Ramy Badrie and Martha Longdon reflect on our recent digital review and suggest that, above all else, providers should involve students in the design and delivery of the digital learning experience.

From contingency to sustainability

The report of the digital teaching and learning review led by former chair of the Office for Students, Sir Michael Barber, arrived at a time when higher education providers are grappling with the future of their digital learning provision. It comes after a year which some would say has accelerated the arrival of the future.

During this period, institutions have transitioned from a contingency style of delivery to a more sustainable approach and now each provider is reflecting on what its return to a ‘new normal’ will look like. While we may have a roadmap for (we hope) a one-way journey out of lockdown, many students are still receiving some or all of their teaching and learning digitally. Despite much discussion about the return to face-to-face learning, digital teaching and learning is, and will continue to be, an urgent issue affecting many students.

While there are many lessons from this period, it may come as no surprise given our roles that we believe there is one we must focus on above all: listening to students and ensuring they are actively involved in the design, delivery and evaluation of their learning and teaching experience. That’s what real student partnership is about.

If an institution plans to translate their experience over the past year into a longer-term strategy, then that strategy can only succeed if it’s built on meaningful collaboration with students. This is not a new or radical idea. It’s what should have been happening before the pandemic, and it is what needs to happen going forward. Students should not simply be asked for their feedback once plans are implemented. Rather, they should be involved in their construction, implementation and evaluation to ensure that effective improvements are made.

Connect all the dots

The uncertainty of the past year has increased the appetite of decision makers to engage in meaningful discussions about the holistic student experience. During this time, we have seen the student voice listened to and involved in aspects that go beyond the purely academic. This trend needs to continue, especially in relation to student support services.

We have also seen the student voice more actively involved in fast-paced, high-risk decision making. As the report highlights, where this has happened better solutions have been devised, communication and transparency have been enhanced, and the full breadth of the student experience in all its diversity has been reflected in decisions which go beyond teaching and learning. These decisions have included:

  • space and the design of the estate
  • digital poverty solutions
  • mental wellbeing and support services
  • digital skills
  • extracurricular activities.

What connects all these pieces? Relationships. Relationships need to be the foundation of whatever the ‘new normal’ looks like and whatever the future of digital learning holds. Infrastructure is often spoken about in abstract terms as the make-or-break factor, when in reality all of these aspects (and many others) constitute infrastructure. We must find a way to bring them together, enable them to speak to one another rather than operate in silos and establish consistency in the digital offer.

Back to better

Staff have gone above and beyond during this time, but the report should not be taken as an absolute endorsement of the quality of the current academic experience.

There is still a way to go, and continuous recalibration and partnership with students will certainly help to get us there. Our vision for digital learning must always be a ‘live document’.

Providers will still be grappling with many difficult questions around the future of digital teaching and learning. How do we move away from a deficit view of digital learning? How do we foster a sense of community online? How will we use the experience of the past year to shape our identity as a community?

A great starting point for answering all of these is ensuring students are at the table and involved in decision making. We need to ask them not just what works but what they value, and build our delivery around that to support student engagement, progression and achievement. They are, after all, experts in their own experience.


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Published 28 April 2021

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