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What the data says: student learning experiences in the first year of COVID-19

In September 2021, the data analytics team at JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) which provides digital resources and support to HE institutions released their most anticipated annual report yet, the Student Digital Experience Insights Survey 2020/21 (see the full report; 10 pages, 8Mbs).

The report summarises nearly 39,000 responses from students in Higher Education (70% UG, 23% PG) at 41 different universities across the UK, identifying the good, the bad, and areas where staff and institutions can make simple changes that radically improve inclusivity and the student learning experience. Later in this article we’ll discuss options for LCC staff using UAL digital learning platforms.

The survey examined four broad themes, including

  1. Where and how students were learning.
  2. How well students felt supported in their use of digital platforms and services.
  3. The range and quality of online learning materials and activities.
  4. The development and support for students’ digital skills.

The full report offers some fascinating and insightful statistics and written responses from students, some of which are more surprising than others. Students were asked what they thought were the most positive aspects of online learning, what barriers prevented them from engaging fully and enthusiastically, and what single thing their tutors and institutions could do to improve their learning experience.

Here is a short summary of the nearly 30,000 written responses:


Significant number of students found that online learning was as effective for them as in-person teaching, particularly because they received more support and opportunities for small group collaboration.

Majority of respondents appreciated the cost and time saving benefits of online learning, as well as the added safety and security for themselves and their families.

Majority of students enjoyed the flexibility of recorded and self-paced content, the ability to pause/review and structure learning around their own lives.

Students recognised that remote learning was a difficult transition for tutors as much as themselves. This significantly increased the appreciation students felt for the ongoing support, communication, and quality materials they received from their tutors.


Majority of students struggled with technical issues as well as access to reliable and affordable wifi.

Many students reported positive experiences, but a significant number found online lectures difficult and disengaging, particularly if they mirrored in-person teaching.

Digital fatigue, trouble with concentration, motivation and well-being as well as feelings of isolation and loneliness were exacerbated by long online lectures with minimal interaction.

Difficulty locating information spread over several platforms and in different formats.

Poor or inconsistently structured course sites on Moodle, and other Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs).

Lack of access to subject specific software students need as well as the skills and devices to use them to their fullest.


Design lessons to fit the delivery, whether in-person, online, or hybrid.

Entrench well-being into curriculum design and delivery by incorporating regular breaks and activities outside the digital space.

Seek regular feedback from students and involve them in lesson planning and design decisions.

Incorporate more interactive and collaborative learning opportunities as well as small group discussions to break up long, online sessions.

Use more quizzes, polls, and other feedback tools as well as quick check-ups at the beginning of class to assess how students are doing and build rapport.

Apply a templated or structured approach to the design of course sites in Moodle and other VLEs to make them easier to navigate.

Summary of insights & actions

Overall, the report suggests that there are some simple steps universities and educators can take to improve their students’ online learning experience.

Here are 3 take-aways and follow-up actions we at LCC can take:

Tackle barriers to online participation: ensure students have access to reliable wifi, suitable devices, safe and private working spaces, and opportunities to socialise and collaborate.

Design specifically for online learning: Recognise the ways teaching online is different from teaching in-person and take full advantage of the added affordance it offers.

  • Action: Take advantage of every opportunity for breakout group discussions, polling (Poll Everywhere, & Mentimeter offer free, but limited accounts), quizzes, and unstructured discussions where students can express themselves and feel more connected to you, their peers, and their course.

Work in partnership with students: student responses to the survey show that they are very eager to be involved and provide feedback on how they learn best.

  • Action: Consider how you can incorporate opportunities for feedback to help you adjust the learning experience to the needs of your students. You can do this in live online sessions using Collaborate Ultra’s chat, whiteboard, or polling tool or asynchronously using Moodle’s feedback activity or questionnaire.

Watch a 30 minute summary of the report from the Association of Learning Technologists conference (Sept. 2021)

One thought on “What the data says: student learning experiences in the first year of COVID-19

  • Thanks so much for this summary. It’s really useful to hear how students are receiving the sessions we design and you’re made me realise that I’m missing an opportunity! I usually ask students to rate the session with a “how did we do” type question, and the ratings are usually good but I need to add a space for students to contribute to the topic, the design of the session and basically get their opinions on how they’d like to learn before I design their learning experience. In fact, I could make it so we design some part of the learning together. Hmmm… I’m off to think a bit more on this. Thank you!


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