Digital learning in Higher Education- more flexible, but also more lonely

By Hannah Ogundipe Akinbode

Digital learning allows students who have long commutes, caring commitments, or a need to work to support their studies greater flexibility in balancing the different calls on their time. However, digital learning during a pandemic is a lonely experience.

The pre-existing inequalities within society have widened as a result of the pandemic

Students from under-represented groups have already experienced disproportionate disadvantage throughout their journey through education. Targeted support has become even more important as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic because, though the pandemic has left no one unaffected, students from under-represented groups are again likely to experience disproportionate levels of disadvantage. According to research conducted by University College London, individuals who reported that they were struggling before lockdown were more likely to indicate being in a worse financial position since then[i]. Similarly, a recent report published by MIND concluded that pre-existing inequalities have widened because of Covid -19. Sadly, the pandemic’s effect on mental health has particularly  affected those who live in social housing, women, people with disabilities and front-line workers which directly impacts a number of under-represented students and their family members[ii].

More light has been shed on the lived reality experienced by students who are disadvantaged

Whilst we can’t as yet draw firm conclusions regarding the impact of digital education, there is much we already know about the limitations of e-learning during this time. This pandemic has shed light on the reality experienced by students who are disadvantaged compared with those who are not, highlighting the extent of the digital divide. Students that come from well-off families are more likely to have access to the resources and space needed to study at home, compared to students from less privileged backgrounds. As mentioned above these students may also have other commitments such as part-time work, childcare or caring responsibilities, which affects their ability to study. In a classroom these different circumstances are not as apparent as students have more of an equal access to learning[iii].

Having started my new role remotely, I can relate to the difficulty of meeting the sudden demands to work from home and having suitable technology to do this well. I’ve had to change my internet provider and borrow my sister’s computer  while my work laptop was being delivered. I count myself lucky to be in a position to have been able to do this and know for many of the students and communities we work with this is simply not the case. The KCLWP Digital Divide Manifesto is a pledge of commitment to learners and communities to keep events accessible during this period. It was created to acknowledge the discrepancy learners face in accessing the essential digital resources to engage in opportunities they have every right to expect and benefit from.

Digital learning can be more accessible, but “digital learning during a pandemic” are two different things

For some students aspects of digital learning will be a welcome relief. With commuter students disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds[iv] and more likely to have additional responsibilities and pressures, e-learning allows such students to reorient these responsibilities and study more flexibly[v]. In fact, some have argued for greater access to digital learning for this group[vi]. However, it’s important to remember that students aren’t experiencing a planned flex to online learning, but a necessary response to a crisis which was both unplanned and untested. As students have been faced with the difficult task to quickly acclimatise to this way of teaching and learning, it is of utmost importance that student needs are continually identified, listened to and met with ongoing robust evaluation (outlined by TASO) that informs intervention.

 Adding to the evidence base of What Works

There is emerging data which is adding to the evidence base of what works. Although with the caveat that this research came from schools and so may not be applicable to universities, the EEF’s recent rapid evidence assessment suggested that there was less need to focus on the debate between synchronous vs asynchronous’ teaching . They found no notable difference between teaching in real time and not doing so. Instead, they stated greater focus should be directed towards teaching quality and clarity, emphasising that pupils could indeed learn well via remote teaching[vii].

During the 2020-21 academic year, What Works is running a series of short pulse surveys to understand the impact of the pandemic on the learning of all students. We’ll use these to understand if the experience was different for students from under-represented backgrounds in comparison to the rest of the student population. An overwhelming message coming out of the two surveys we’ve run so far is that a high number of students from all backgrounds across undergraduate and postgraduate level of study are lonely.   It’s harder to make new connections and opportunities to interact are limited. As well as a desire from the majority (though not all) to be on campus, many wanted more opportunities to see and speak to their course mates, be that in digital break-out rooms, or for their course mates to be encouraged to have their cameras on for live lectures. Having recently completed my induction and met my new colleagues remotely, I sympathise with this too. It’s hard to build connections when you can’t meet face to face.

To help students feel a part of King’s we need to help them build connections

In What Works, we encourage practitioners to consider our ACES Framework when designing engagement activities. The core components of the framework are that practitioners should:

  • Affirm Belonging
  • Consider the Choice Architecture
  • Empower and Enable
  • Support Social Connections[viii]

This has been in place and at the forefront of our approach since 2018, and is arguably even more important now, given the findings above and the context we (staff and students) are now in. All of the above are essential to the choices we’re asking students to make in the new normal. Also, many students may feel like passive consumers of educational content currently, and appreciate ways to feel empowered. I would argue that in the current climate the social connections aspect of the ACES Framework is more important than ever for practitioners to consider when designing their projects. The way activities are set up online is vital to reduce the ‘virtual distance’, support social connections and increase student motivation, participation and learning outcomes. There are many ways to ensure that we are building meaningful opportunities for students to interact, such as: offering workshops as well as e-learning videos, including quizzes in videos, enabling peer questioning and feedback, creating opportunities for break out discussions, creating discussion boards, and scheduling video chat opportunities with course mates and tutors – all with a watchful eye on the amount of screen time needed to do all of this!

We need to help students access the resources they need, this includes other students

The flexibility of digital learning has created some positive opportunities for a number of students to manage learning around their other life commitments, which would be making things that little bit easier if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. Yet, there has been a significant social, financial and emotional impact on students. For students to be able to participate in their learning online, in this moment, they need the right resources, such as access to good technology as well as opportunities to socially connect and engage with their course mates and tutors in meaningful ways. Afterall, we are all social beings in need of human connection.


Read our reports

Click here to join our mailing list.

Follow us on Twitter: @KCLWhatWorks






[v] Hordosy, R. and Clark, T.W. (2019) Student budgets and widening participation: Comparative experiences of finance in low and higher income undergraduates at a Northern Red Brick University. Social Policy and Administration, 53 (5). pp. 761-775. ISSN 0144-5596

[vi] Shah, M.; Goode, E.; West, S.; Clark, H. (2014) Widening Student Participation in Higher Education through Online Enabling Education Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, Volume 16, Number 3, 1 October 2014, pp. 36-57(22)




Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.