The emergency closures of educational institutions precipitated by Covid-19 have made issues of students’ experiences and satisfaction with online learning have become more salient than ever. Numerous researchers have rightly taken the opportunity to investigate what students think of online learning alongside what they want and need.
Much insight has been gained through this, with consensus across the many studies. Other than students’ digital confidence and readiness, three foundational factors have emerged to play potentially significant roles for progress in the edtech industry.
One lesson from the pandemic is the crucial role of social interaction, especially when online learning is physically a ‘class of one’ (Landrum et al., 2021, J Ed Business). The reality of online learning, therefore, needs to confront this danger of disconnection and isolation, especially because we know the significance of social connection in learner persistence and engagement with learning.
For example, a recent longitudinal structural equation model analysis found peer interaction together with the instructor’s sociability and relatability to, together, improve learners’ emotional and cognitive engagement (Manwaring et al., 2017, Internet and HE). Moreover, the centrality of social connection is echoed among diverse student groups, to the extent that we can describe social support as ‘social capital’, a resource that empowers HE learners (Mishra, 2020, Ed Res Review).
One way to promote social connection is to teach with social media. By integrating social media into strategies for online Higher Education, remote learning has the capacity to cease to be remote, as far as student experience is concerned (Greenhow & Galvin, 2020). There also needs to be a balance between space for independent study and teacher availability as facilitators and mentors (Shearer et al., 2020, Am J Dist Ed).
Nevertheless, social connection is not the only thing that matters. Students themselves consistently emphasise the importance of quality in their educational experience.
When students are asked to give their perspective, the resounding feedback across academic research is that, yes, teacher and peer presence are important, along with adequate online modalities to support these (Van Wart et al., 2020, Int J Ed Tech HE). But high quality course designs are on an equal par to the social dimension.
Course objectives need to be clear and concise, as do guidelines for how to participate in any online course. And these need to be put in place during course development. Wherever possible, activities need to be obviously and immediately relevant to the learners’ work and the real world. New learning needs to build on previous learning, rather than repeating what learners already know (Caskurlu et al., 2021, Comp & Ed).
Not surprisingly, the more quality measures are put in place, the more students are likely to re-enroll when courses have reputable quality assurances. Indeed, high profile certification and online proctoring help maintain and increase student numbers (Andrade et al., 2020, J Ed Business).
Availability of online resources
The third insight from the post-pandemic literature on online learning is that students now want even more. Students want social presence and quality education—but they also want choice.
Management students have been found more satisfied with increasing opportunities to interact with learning content (Hamdan et al., 2021, Int J Ed Man). Both Business (Andrade et al., 2020) and Management (Hamdan et al., 2021) students also become more satisfied as their access to the number of e-learning courses grows.
When we stop and think, it makes sense for one single course not to suit any individual learner as well as multiple course options can. After all, learners learn in very different ways, depending on their personalities, their idea of what knowledge is or what it’s for, and their goal for registering onto a course. These are a few major factors that explain why learners need choice and diversity in how they journey through online learning (Vermunt & Donche, 2017, Ed Psych Review).
While there has been growing recognition of social connection as an essential ingredient in successful online learning over the past decade, the pandemic has fast tracked insights into online learners’ experiences and expectations. Students possess significant insight into as well as a keen desire for high quality online education. There is also consensus that, with each course that they subscribe to, students would generally welcome increased diversity in the learning resources available to them.
The time has come for competing providers to unite in order to provide socially connected education that reaches the next level of quality standards. The FOME Alliance is a group of institutions which is doing just. Member institutions of the FOME Alliance have long and rich traditions in online learning. Together, they are continually developing strategies which build pioneering research insights such as those gained over the past year.