Up to 50% of university students unhappy with online learning, regulator finds

A “very large proportion” of university students do not like online learning and “do not wish to ever experience it again”, according to a wide-ranging report from the higher education regulator.

A review of student feedback has identified remote learning as “a problem” if it continues into 2021, after universities adopted it during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Students said it resulted in a “lack of engagement”, less time overall in class, isolation from their peers, IT issues, and made examinations and assessments particularly difficult and potentially unfair.

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Particular degrees like engineering, science, visual and performing arts were also especially affected by the lack of practical learning.

In recent months, Western Australia’s Murdoch University and Curtin University have announced that they will maintain online-only classes in 2021. At Murdoch, lectures will be online while “most” tutorials will remain face-to-face, and there will be more physical classes in fields of medicine, molecular and forensic sciences. Curtin plans to make all lectures online under a draft proposal.

The report, from the national Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, collected feedback surveys from 118 higher education providers across semester one.

It found that between 33% and 50% of students were unhappy with online learning.

“A very large proportion of respondents … commented that they did not like the experience of online learning and did not wish to ever experience it again,” the report said.

“These are large numbers across the sector and present a problem if the transition to online study must remain well into 2021.”

While the report said that most responses to online learning were positive, “a significant percentage … indicated that they did not wish to continue with remote study and wished to return to a face-to-face experience as soon as possible”.

The TEQSA also flagged a “somewhat disturbing” finding that many students did not want to use their video in online classes because they were ashamed about the appearance of their homes, or the presence of family members, after they were suddenly forced to take all classes from home.

When asked what “did not work well”, 41% of respondents reported IT problems, 34% said there was a lack of academic interaction, 30% said the assessments caused issues and 29% said there was a lack of engagement.

Fifteen per cent of respondents said online learning created issues with isolation, finance and their housing or home environment.

Between 20% and 22% of students had a positive response, and said they liked the “flexible access to materials” provided by online learning.

However, students also reported that the length of their online classes was shorter than their face-to-face classes, but they also had to do more work.

“Significant” issues were raised degrees like engineering or visual arts, that had important practical elements, or the final “capstone” years of other degrees, that often required internships or practical skills.

“It was reported many times that the duration of classes … was less than for face-to-face instruction,” the report found. “The students reported that this was unsettling and led a number to comment that they didn’t think they were getting ‘value for money’ by receiving tuition in the online mode.”

The Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi, who is the party’s higher education spokeswoman, said that universities should return to face-to-face classes as soon as possible.

“It would be a devastating result of Covid-19 if we were to move to a university system where online is the norm and campus life a distant memory,” she said.

“While there’s certainly a role for online learning, and it can be transformative for accessibility of education, it’s illogical and harmful to have it fully replace basic things like face-to-face lectures.

“I’m concerned universities will capitalise on the move to online learning in order to cut costs and reduce staffing, which would also undermine the quality of education.”

The TEQSA report found that students felt isolated as a result of online classes, and also the closing of study spaces like libraries.

“Lack of access to libraries emerged as a significant concern to students,” it said.

“It appeared this was related to not having a quiet place to study but also contributed to the sense of isolation because libraries are now a major contributor to students’ socialising with their peers.”

The report also found that students did hope that increased flexibility would continue after a return to face-to-face teaching.

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Faruqi said that the push to online learning was related to funding cuts to universities from the federal government.

“We can’t ignore that the Morrison government has cut billions from university funding, including through the ‘job-ready graduates’ measures. The incentive to move online is created by these cuts.”

Earlier this year, one of the pro vice-chancellors of Murdoch University, Kylie Readman, said that their online-only lessons would increase flexibility.

“Many disciplines have already moved away from face-to-face lectures to emphasise experiences that engage students in learning the subject matter,” Readman told WA Today.

“Even without the impact of Covid-19, this is a contemporary and pedagogically sound approach that increases students’ flexible access to learning.”

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