Online and Digital Learning

Accessibility, balance and confidence: three areas of development for higher education

I’ve been looking at various surveys, analyses and reports recently to understand trends and the ongoing development in the higher education sector as online learning becomes established as embedded, rather than emergency provision, for campus-based programmes. In this post I explore Jisc’s Student digital experience insights survey (Jisc, 2021), which provides a useful snapshot of perceptions and experiences from over 21,000 students for a two-week period in the first part of the 2020/21 academic year. 

The report starts, quite rightly, with recognition of the exceptional effort teaching staff, support staff and institutions have made to enable courses to continue in exceptional circumstances. The survey looks at a broad range of measures in the support and delivery of online learning, though largely with a technical focus, though there are some insights that can be gleaned for learning designers and curriculum development.

As new models of higher education that embrace hybrid learning and innovative approaches for the benefit of both staff and students are developed, programme leaders and institutions can draw upon data like this to inform decisions in their context. From my perspective, there are three areas that should be developed further. Each bridges the technical and pedagogical, and neither aspect should be considered without the other.

Accessibility for disabled students

The latest data available shows 14.6% students in 2019/20 declared a disability (HESA, 2021). Compare this with 17% of survey respondents using assistive technologies. Whilst the two cohorts differ, and the Jisc survey does not represent all institutions, it is not too unreasonable to assert the significance of assistive technologies to support some students’ learning, including those who do not declare a disability (and assistive technology is not appropriate for every disability). The Jisc report notes only 39% were offered support to use these tools, however in some cases students will have established their use outside the scope of the survey time period or found support elsewhere. It is, however, dangerous to assume that use and support of assistive technologies alone remediates barriers accessing content. The prevalence of recorded lectures, with limited opportunity for immediate clarification of content, require adjustments not just in captioning, but also in presentation style. For example, suitable and appropriate verbal description of visuals, such as graphs and diagrams, where their understanding is key to learning objectives as part of the recording. Providing a mix of synchronous and asynchronous opportunities for interaction will enable a broader range of disabled students to benefit, where just one mode on its own may not be accessible. There are the other aspects of accessibility, including document structure and intelligible course site navigation, that should become embedded in practice. I’m keen that accessibility is not seen as purely a technical matter, as accessible pedagogy and teaching practice can complement technological enhancements for all students.

Balancing students’ time learning and accessing learning

In the Jisc report, a staggering 62% of students had wifi connectivity issues, and there were many other technical barriers to engaging with online learning both on and off campus. Recorded and live streamed lectures are a frequent form of online delivery (84% and 86% respectively), along with access to course materials (81%). Yet with unreliable connectivity, the dependency on high bandwidth media will, in my view, need to be swiftly addressed.

“Simple steps like ensuring any videos used are compressed and avoiding use of cameras for large [synchronous] groups can help.”

(Jisc, 2021, p.8)

Platforms that enable control over the quality of the stream and provide options for downloading for offline viewing later provide an advantage. Similarly, enhanced digital literacy training for both staff and students, or even discipline-based policies, may prevent issues such as over-size PowerPoint files or email attachments that exceed sensible limits. There are pedagogical choices also in terms of recording shorter chunks for lectures and considering what is important within a ‘lecture’ and what could be delivered in an alternative format. 

Just over half respondents said they’d engaged with online discussions with their lecturer, which suggests thoughtful design of modules that have gone beyond transmission to provide opportunities for dialogue. However, more than half (in the period of two weeks the survey covered) reported little or no feedback on work or quizzes or tests. Formative assessment, even self-assessment, provides a valuable tool for teaching staff to review the progress of students and therefore adapt and maximise the value of lectures and discussion time. It may be that students reported they did not receive feedback considering only written feedback, where verbal and automated feedback might not have been thought of as feedback on their work. The dominance of the lecture persists though, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, providing narrative and verbal explanations of key concepts to demonstrate discipline practices. Yet, with continued technical barriers, course leaders could significantly rethink where students are best to put their time into their learning, rather than having to overcome challenges accessing learning materials. This applies as much to individual lecture courses as it does to the full programme of study, and scheduling of courses was identified as a particular negative aspect of online learning. A student quote from the Jisc report acts as a warning note for individual educators and course timetablers: 

“Long lectures (3 hours) makes it hard to stay motivated when staring at a laptop screen and juggling poor wifi, lack of privacy and disruptions within the home. These issues make it difficult to concentrate.”

(Jisc, 2021, p.9)

Supporting students to become confident online learners

It is no surprise then that the most popular source of support when students require help is from their peers (67%), and their lecturer (61%). Only one in six students sought help from IT and related services. The Jisc report recommended clearer signposting of the range of support service, but I suspect the tutorial videos and written guidance (46% of respondents accessed) from a self-help perspective may have been preferred as instant-access, anytime of day and night and perhaps quicker for some issues. The peer support approach is, I believe, quite significant as it enables the cohort to establish peer networks too. Whilst not all students may feel comfortable reaching out to others they have not met, for some I suspect learning about learning together (and perhaps griping about what doesn’t work) acts as a useful group forming process. 

The most telling extract from the report is a summary of open text responses on the challenges of becoming an online learner:

“Online learning is hard and difficult and can be overwhelming. Students report receiving toomuch work and expectations of a larger volume of independent work than usual but without the benefit of timely support.”

(Jisc, 2021, p.11)

As I have suggested in previous blog posts, embedding learning how to learn online as part of a course can be a useful technique that gives every student the opportunity to access the right digital skills training at the right time. For example, if a course is predominantly lecture-based, then digital note-making may be an appropriate skill to develop as part of the course. Alternatively, if the course involves collaborative documents, then establishing protocols within groups for how to manage and communicate changes would be great to embed as part of the course content. This guidance can be centrally held, but institutions need to avoid the temptation to link to an index and expect students to find the right content. Signposting guidance is partly about curation (by lecturing staff, support staff or even students), and it has to be appropriate to and in context of the learning activity.

Bearing in mind the potential for online learning to be ‘overwhelming’, exploring new ways of teaching and equipping students with new skills for learning needs balancing, as students (as well as staff) may not be fully prepared for the challenges of online learning. Whilst it’s worth noting the Jisc survey data was collected at the start of the academic year (October – December 2020), it will be valuable to see changes in response data over time to see whether students have adapted and developed their learning skills. Similarly, whether pedagogical approaches have changed and been accepted by both staff and students. 


  1. HESA (2021). Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2019/20 – Student numbers and characteristics. Higher Education Statistics Agency.
  2. Jisc (2021). Student digital experience insights survey 2020/21: Question by question findings for UK higher education based on data gathered October – December 2020 (pulse 1). March 2021. Jisc data analytics.

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