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Hong Kong University students’ online learning experiences under the Covid-19 pandemic

  • 3 August 2020
  • By Weiyan Xiong, Jin Jiang, & Ka Ho Mok

This blog was kindly contributed by a team of researchers at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. They are Weiyan Xiong, Assistant Professor (Research), Jin Jiang, Assistant Professor (Research), and Ka Ho Mok, Chair Professor of Comparative Policy.

Online Learning in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, online courses, especially live-streaming classes, have been adopted by universities and colleges as the primary teaching and learning method, no matter whether students and instructors are ready or not.

Even though the online elements have been integrated into higher education teaching for some time, the major formats are asynchronous and static, such as the use of class arrangement platforms to share teaching materials, discussions, and class recordings. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the live-streaming of courses to the frontline of higher education teaching. Recent studies have shown that this sudden transformation has brought with it confusion to students and instructors and questions around whether the effectiveness of online learning meets student expectation.

Moreover, those suspicious of online learning in the COVID-19 pandemic have had a chance to revisit some trendy topics in higher education, including the argument that online learning and teaching will soon replace the traditional face-to-face classes and online learning will be the remedy for some issues (like rising tuition costs) faced by current higher education.

From university students’ perspective on teaching and learning, what is the role of information and communication technology (ICT) under the COVID-19 pandemic? More specifically, how can students evaluate their online learning experiences? Are they satisfied with their experiences and do they think that their online learning courses are as effective as face-to-face courses? What are the main challenges for their online learning?

To answer these questions, the research team of the School of Graduate Studies of Lingnan University conducted a survey on the online learning experience of university students in Hong Kong against the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.


We circulated a questionnaire using the Qualtrics survey platform from 5 to 12 May 2020 to examine the experience of Hong Kong university students. Junior research partners at Lingnan University were recruited to assist the distribution of survey questions to all higher education institutions in Hong Kong. The survey included questions on respondents’ online learning satisfaction, effectiveness and challenges, as well as their perceptions of the comparison between online courses and traditional face-to-face courses.

There were 1,227 valid responses on the online learning experience during the pandemic and these came from eight public universities in Hong Kong. Of those, 71 per cent were studying undergraduate programmes and 19 per cent were reading for associate degree programmes. In terms of the formats of online courses, 90 per cent of respondents were taking live courses while half of total respondents were able to re-watch the recordings after classes.

1) Online Learning Satisfaction and Effectiveness

The results show only 27 per cent of respondents were satisfied with their online learning experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Respondents’ overall satisfaction with their online learning experiences

More than 60 per cent of respondents thought the learning effectiveness of online courses was worse than that of face-to-face courses (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Respondents’ comparison on learning effectiveness of online class and face-to-face classes

Specifically, around half of the respondents found that online courses decreased their studying time and efficiency while increasing their studying pressure (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Respondents’ comparison on study time, efficiency and pressure of online classes and face-to-face classes

In addition, respondents with better IT literacy and skills felt more satisfied with the effectiveness of online learning. Also, respondents from high-income families felt more satisfied with their online learning in the pandemic than those from low-income families.

2) Major Challenges of Online Learning

Regarding the challenges faced by respondents in their online learning in the pandemic (Figure 4), the top five were:

  1. ‘lack of self-discipline’ (60%);
  2. ‘poor learning atmosphere’ (56%);
  3. ‘eye-fatigue due to long-time staring at the screen’ (54%);
  4. ‘distractions from surroundings’ (54%); and
  5. ‘unstable Internet connection’ (50%).
Figure 4. Challenges of online learning

Respondents also indicated that they had challenges during their online learning using text responses. These can be summarised as obstacles linked to the fact that ‘instructors are not familiar with the online teaching platform.’ In addition, students were worried about the leakage of their personal information in the online course platform.

3) Factors Influencing Online Learning Effectiveness

In terms of the factors influencing online learning effectiveness (Figure 5), in addition to the ‘stability of Internet connection’ (60%), ‘in-class interactions’ (50%) and ‘after-class communications and consultancy with instructors’ (46%) were emphasised by respondents as the top facilitators for good online learning experiences. In addition, respondents indicated that online learning has the advantage of high-level autonomy and, if the university can provide sufficient support, the online learning experiences can be greatly improved.

Figure 5. Factors influencing online learning effectiveness.

Policy Implications

The results show students’ and instructors’ IT literacy and skills affect their online learning satisfaction and effectiveness. Higher education institutions should pay more attention to training students to help them familiarise themselves with online learning platforms and cultivate the appropriate online learning habits. Higher education institutions should also enhance IT literacy and online teaching training for faculty members to make use of the advantages of online formats.

While providing sufficient support in human resources, hardware, and software to online learning, higher education institutions should also reflect the role of ICT in higher education, as it seems too early to replace the traditional face-to-face courses with online teaching. Course instructors should creatively establish the online environments to enhance students’ learning experiences, academically, mentally, and physically. Finally, the government should put more effort into supporting universities in the research of enhancing students’ online learning effectiveness.

As no one knows for how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last, higher education institutions should take note of these concerns raised by university students when designing teaching and learning strategies. The unprecedented global health crisis has rendered ‘normal practices’ inappropriate.

Leaders and teachers must creatively make use of modern technology to inform teaching and learning activities without undervaluing the importance of face-to-face instruction.

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