Must Read Blog June 27, 2023

Building Digital Learning Experiences for Today’s Higher Education Students and Faculty

We’ve hit a milestone moment: more of today’s higher education students report a preference for courses delivered in hybrid, blended or online formats (68%) than the traditional face to face format (31%). In addition, they are adopting AI tools at unprecedented rates. This shift is prompted by changing expectations for learning, demand for flexibility, and shaped by a K-12 education filled with digital learning experiences.

In addition, more and more institutions are approaching (or at least trying to approach) digital learning as integrated and core to the teaching and enterprise vs. via the siloed online or continuing education unit of old. Evidence continues to demonstrate that, implemented well, digital learning is one part of a systemic higher education transformation that can improve student access, improve completion, close gaps, and support improved learning outcomes. For instructors, digital tools have the potential to change how they spend their time, render better data regarding student learning, and enable positive learning intervention. And with the expanded capabilities and proliferation of AI tools, the exponential potential for both impact AND hype, is front of mind for many an academic leader and product developer alike. 

Through that lens, our 2023 Time for Class research, the largest running study of teaching and learning in higher education, points to the most urgent places we can focus improvement. This national survey of students, faculty, and administrators gives a unique view of the experiences, challenges, and preferences for teaching and learning with a goal of providing institutions, solutions providers, and funders with actionable strategies to address gaps in the field. In partnership with Anthology and Turnitin, and additional research support from Macmillan Learning, Lumina Foundation, Every Learner Everywhere, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we conducted three large-scale surveys in Spring 2023, gathering insights from 2,048 students, 1,748 instructors, and 306 higher education administrators.

There are a set of student and institutional stakeholder experiences we must address to better realize the promise of digital learning across.

Confront a mismatch in the expectations of today’s students vs. instructors on course format and modality.

Most students prefer hybrid, blended, and online courses, whereas faculty preferences trend to face-to-face. More than half of instructors prefer teaching face-to-face, but only a third of students prefer face-to-face courses. The remaining 70% of students prefer digital elements to course modality with the top choice being hybrid courses (22%).

Institutions should consider student preferences and expectations for hybrid courses and digital course materials as part of the overall learning strategy and the student experience needed to serve today’s learners and support instructors in the selection and implementation of tools. 

Address students’ lack of reliable access to technology and devices, which causes them stress.

Two-thirds of administrators see digital learning as a tool to drive academic success for students, including those experiencing financial need and from underserved racial groups, but many students lack access to stable internet, devices, and applications as seen in the figure below. This problem is particularly acute for students at community colleges and students of color. 

Instructors and product developers should operate under the working assumption that students are under-connected, using multiple devices and browsers, and need to download content for offline access. Policy-makers must address this via funding models.

Generative AI is here to stay and instructors are grappling with how to assess writing with academic integrity. 

46% of students report they will use generative AI writing tools, even if prohibited by their instructor or institution. At the same time, preventing student cheating, especially with the release of open-use generative AI writing tools, is a new top challenge for faculty.

Assessment approaches and solutions that enable instructors to view student processes are positioned well. 

Instructor experimentation with generative AI lags that of students, and those who have tried it see learning benefits.

Three times as many students than faculty reported being regular users of generative AI writing tools like ChatGPT. Both faculty and students who are using and experimenting with generative AI tools are far more optimistic about their impact on teaching and learning. They note that use cases range from developing assessments, providing real time coaching and feedback on an assignment based on a grading rubric, describing challenging concepts in different ways to support understanding, and to create unique in class learning experiences. 

Students are anxious about their studies and courseloads.

Students are anxious about their studies and courseloads, with 71% of students reporting they were anxious about their course-load or expectations this term, most often turning to peers, instructors, or their course materials or supplements for support.

Keep an eye out for our upcoming release of Driving Toward a Degree 2023 to learn more about institutional supports for student success. 

Good teaching matters, but institutions need to support it.

Students who report that their instructors use more evidence-based teaching practices also report more positive outcomes such as belonging and confidence that they will pass the course. Instructors who report that they work at institutions that prioritize teaching and learning (e.g., incentivize effective teaching, and provide training on course design) are more likely to engage in these practices and thereby improve student outcomes.

Institutions should assess their policies and professional learning to ensure that effective teaching and experimentation are supported and solutions providers can provide support with how to implement learning tools in ways that enable these practices

Students and faculty both note there remain affordability barriers to accessing course materials, and faculty prioritize this as a decision-factor in materials selection.

Faculty are aware of student affordability challenges and the majority of faculty rate this as among the most important criteria in their selection of course materials, followed by ease of implementation. Students prefer access models that reduce price and deliver materials on the first day of class and inclusive and equitable access models show promise in achieving this goal.

As product developers and distributors seek to design course materials that support the most important needs of faculty, these primary factors – affordability, ease of implementation, the support for active pedagogy and assessment of authentic learning, and provision of feedback to students are among the most important factors to consider and design for. 

As always, contact us if you want to set up time with our team to discuss implications on your organization’s strategy.