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Disadvantaged students and graduates need even more help in a pandemic

Commenting on a week of higher education news, Alice Gent, Policy, Research and Communications Intern, and Ruby Nightingale, Communications and Public Affairs Manager at the Sutton Trust, highlight evidence that Covid-19 is having a disproportionate impact on students and graduates from poorer backgrounds.

How to make online learning a dynamic experience rather than like a ‘Netflix binge’

As HEi-know publishes a Good Practice Briefing on the transition to online delivery of HE, James Clay, head of higher education and student experience at Jisc, who provides an overview in the Briefing, offers some tips on overcoming the challenges of making the shift to online teaching.


Before the Covid-19 lockdown, universities had a range of support and training mechanisms in place to support lecturers in delivering teaching and learning online. The challenge that many of them are currently facing is in doing this at scale and at pace, and remotely.

Consequently, the demand for training and support has increased from staff across the HE sector, and many university teams are sharing their resources on how to deliver online. There are plenty of top tips out there. The question, though, is whether staff have the time to engage with these training materials and resources, while designing and delivering online.

Being able to ‘deliver’ online means having a range of skills and capabilities – it’s not just about uploading content. Designing an online learning experience means ensuring it is effective and enhances the student experience, ensuring there is a range of content, and that that content is accessible.

Increasingly, lecturers also need to be able to design the whole curriculum and develop it in a way that is engaging and encourages interaction with and among the students.

We have seen universities making use of the current affordability of digital technologies to transform how they deliver; making use of a wider range of tools; and using asynchronous tools as well as remote live delivery platforms.

Student engagement is critical for successful learning, and most universities are fully aware of this. Communication is key and, to be effective, needs to be delivered at appropriate times and through a range of channels, and by varying departments and individual staff.

It might seem a simple option to translate physical teaching directly into an online copy using a video streaming tool, but there are significant differences.

It’s one thing to move between lecture theatres for several hours, grabbing coffee and chatting with friends in between. It’s something else to sit at home for a whole day with a headset on listening to lectures - it’s like a Netflix binge, but a lot less entertaining.

Online lectures are best delivered by presenters who can be dynamic, because presenting to a webcam will ‘flatten’ their ‘performance’.  

Good audio is critical, too, along with a decent microphone. Most people will put up with poor video, but will switch off if they can’t hear well, especially for longer sessions.

And so, one way to encourage engagement is to keep online sessions short. One-hour sessions could be split into three 20-minute bursts, for example. Some of these could be recorded in advance, so then the discussion could be a live session, akin to the flipped learning models we have seen in the recent past.

Remember that in these critical times there is also a very real risk of online overload, as so much content is being transferred online, and people are also now a lot more likely to turn to video conferencing to stay in touch with family and friends.

Universities are recognising and taking into account that students are living through a time of crisis. They may be socially isolated, or disadvantaged, self-isolating, or dealing with the stress of sick family and friends, all while trying to deal with the restriction of lockdown. This is all having an impact on student wellbeing and their ability to engage with the learning process.

Academic staff, too, have had to quickly adapt and adjust, not just to delivering teaching online, using unfamiliar platforms, but also having to do this during a lockdown, in many cases in the family home with all the added pressures this brings.

The fact that academics are, despite all the pressures, delivering remotely to students across the UK (and internationally) is an amazing achievement.