Last year over 2.5 million students enrolled in UK higher education institutions. As we know, the vast majority had no choice but to switch to online learning due to the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, around a third of students who responded to a recent ONS survey subsequently felt either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their academic experience. Despite this upheaval, numbers of higher education students are set to reach record levels this academic year. As universities welcome back their students and a bumper crop of first-years and many learners flock back into lecture theatres, universities are all too aware that things are by no means back to normal.
To manage the ongoing risk of the coronavirus, many higher education institutions are still offering some classes and learning resources online. Liverpool University, for example, has a hybrid approach planned with many lectures delivered online, complemented by face-to-face sessions. Though this is a step in the right direction, not all students are thrilled at the prospect of a continued (partially) virtual university experience.
Ultimately, universities are businesses. Students aren’t just service users; they’re also customers. So, what can these institutions do to make sure students’ experience of remote or hybrid learning is the best it can be? One answer is to control the controllable.
Where they might not be able to guarantee access to foam parties at the Students’ Union and heated classroom tutorial debates about Nietzsche, universities can make sure that students’ online experience is as seamless as possible. In this environment, well-built systems and smooth user experiences gain new significance, especially as universities strive to justify their fees.
One way of doing this is to continue investing in fit-for-purpose cyber security. This isn’t simply a case of securing the university’s systems from external threats, nor is it just a means of avoiding nuisance viruses on students’ machines – it has a genuine and direct impact on students’ overall user experience.
Sadly, cybercriminals jumped on universities’ unavoidable switch to remote learning and exploited the situation with ransomware attacks. Some IT departments were able to get their new systems up, running, and secured in time, but others were not so lucky. This led to severe outages, sometimes lasting for weeks, which interrupted learning and caused enormous headaches for staff and students who were already under a lot of stress.
Universities have had to quickly implement security strategies and systems that don’t rely on closed networks and access to on-site devices so that students can study from home. Now that they’ve laid the groundwork, universities have a unique opportunity to provide their students with more flexibility.
Higher education institutions that implement layered security systems are well set up for students to take advantage of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies and allow them to access the university’s network and resources from anywhere at any time. As time goes on, that might not just mean from home but also cafes with unsecured Wi-Fi networks or even international locations – giving students true flexibility in how they access their learning, even post-pandemic.
Beyond security, the pandemic has forced improvements across many other areas of shared working technologies, too – from secure drop-boxes for documents to video conferencing and messaging systems. Though universities have implemented changes to their technological setup out of necessity, now’s the time to take advantage of these foundations and future-proof their student offering.
Could hybrid access to tutorials provide an accessible way for more students to attend face-to-face sessions remotely?
Could collaborative working software make joint projects easier to manage?
And could secure online learning portals provide a way to offer more courses to a broader number of students?
Now’s the time to reassess how universities continue to deliver accessible and reliable hybrid learning to give their students both the best user experience and the best university experience.