Universal Mentors Association

Student and faculty perspectives on digital learning differ


More than half of faculty members say they prefer face-to-face classes over hybrid or online delivery, but nearly seven in 10 students say they prefer an instructional model with at least some virtual component. Three-quarters of students favor digital course materials over print, while professors are split 50-50. And 60 percent of faculty instructors opt to send students to the traditional bookstore as their primary method of course material access, though barely 15 percent of students say they prefer to purchase new print materials.

Those findings, drawn from a report released Tuesday by Tyton Partners, show that even as digital learning becomes a fundamental feature of today’s higher education landscape, student, faculty and administrative perspectives about it don’t always align.

The survey, part of a series the research and consulting firm has produced since the pandemic, combines the results of three spring surveys to document the challenges, experiences and preferences of more than 2,000 students, 1,700 instructors and 300 administrators. Past surveys in the series analyzed faculty members’ thoughts on emergency remote learning in the spring of 2020, as well as their growth in confidence and accrued exhaustion the following year. The latest report is the first to factor students’ perspectives into the mix.

While the survey’s results showed plenty of gaps in understanding and perspective among professors, students and administrators, like those above, the data also revealed common ground. When instructors feel supported by their institution, the researchers found, they are more likely to engage in teaching practices that enhance student outcomes.

“There’s a lot that’s hard and challenging and not working as well as we’d want it to in higher education right now,” said Kristen Fox, Tyton Partners’ managing director and co-author on the report. “But I just continue to see promise and silver lining, in the creativity, the real dedication of instructors to understand what their student challenges and needs are, and to adjust their use of teaching practice and digital pedagogies to serve the needs of learners.”

Challenges of Access

The differences in perspective on digital learning emerge at the foundational level of access to a computer and consistent internet service. Nearly 80 percent of administrators said they believe digital learning can drive academic success for all students. They listed “improving access and flexibility” as the top objective for digital learning, above both cost-effectiveness and increased enrollment.

But the administrative visions of flexibility and equitable access don’t necessarily square with many students’ realities.

Twenty-two percent of students surveyed said they experienced stress because they lacked consistent access to a laptop or desktop computer, and 40 percent said they experienced stress due to unstable or inconsistent internet access. Students of color were six percentage points more likely to experience the same stressors.

Based on proximity to students, faculty members seemed aware of these access challenges. Many ranked affordability and ease of use among their top considerations when choosing course materials. Even so, more than 60 percent of faculty members report that they use a traditional bookstore supply-purchasing model, as opposed to entirely free materials, at about 15 percent, or even fewer on average that turn to an inclusive or equitable access model. The latter models provide students with all required materials for a discounted rate per course or at a flat rate fee for the entire term.

Bar chart showing primary course material access model by sector (2-year, 4-year public, 4-year private) according to instructors and administrators. By far the most popular model for all sectors and respondents is traditional as opposed to free or inclusive or equitable access.

“It’s a transition period, I think,” Ria Bharadwaj, a lead author on the report, said. “Faculty recognize the challenges students are having, but they’re still working to figure out how to change their courses or change their course materials to reflect that.”

Digital Preference Remains

Though they struggle with access to digital learning, students still show a higher preference for digital course materials and hybrid classes—preferences that do not align with those of instructors.

Although both faculty and students still rank face-to-face courses as the highest preferred model when categorized individually, 55 percent and 31 percent respectively, when all hybrid and fully digital options are combined, about 70 percent of students prefer them to face-to-face classes.

Even when the course model isn’t in question, three-quarters of students say they prefer digital course materials compared to fewer than half of faculty instructors.

“It is a real juxtaposition that is worth noting,” Fox said.

But it also doesn’t mean students are looking for an entirely digital education.

Instead, Fox said it prompts the questions of, “How do you think about flexibility in terms of teaching and learning that still occurs with that human touch, and the engagement and the sense of community and belonging?”

Bar chart showing students' and instructors' preferences for course modality. Respondents could choose face-to-face courses, hybrid courses, fully online courses, HyFlex or blended courses.

As far as why students still prefer digital course models and materials despite the challenges of access over all, Bharadwaj hypothesizes it is all about flexibility and the chance to build digital and technological skills students see themselves needing in their future careers. “The access part is a barrier, I think, that institutions, policy makers and solution providers really need to address because it’s in the student’s best interest,” she said.

The New Frontier

Student and faculty perspectives diverge not only in debates over preferred learning models, but also in the new frontier of artificial intelligence services like ChatGPT.

The report’s data supported a growing number of anecdotal accounts that students are far ahead of faculty members and administrators when it comes to the pace of AI exploration. The survey showed that within just 100 days of ChatGPT’s launch in November 2022, nearly one in three students reported regular use of generative AI tools, compared to only about one in 10 faculty members.

“The genie is out of the bottle here, in terms of students using this tool, and using it at paces that exceed that of instructors and administrators,” Fox said.

Data from the report also showed that about half of students will continue to use AI even if their instructor or institution as a whole prohibits it. That number climbs to nearly 70 percent when looking at students that are already using AI.

But as instructors and institutions begin making decisions around the future of these tools in their courses and at their institutions, Bharadwaj said it will be important for faculty members to catch up to students.

“Just generally, the fact that they’re using the tools suggests that their perspective has changed,” she said. “We want to make sure that anyone who’s using this—anyone who’s kind of not ‘living under a rock,’ as one of our faculty mentioned—has experimented with the tools, because there’s no doubt that your students have.”


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