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The vast majority of students want in-person learning, not more online classes

  • 15 July 2021
  • By Jenny Shaw

This blog was kindly contributed by Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director at Unite Students. You can find Jenny on Twitter @jennyshaw.

Come with me, for a moment, back to 1998; to a fusty office somewhere in north London. From the radio in the corner, Cher is asking us if we believe, but Céline Dion reassured us that her heart would go on. With a group of likeminded geeks, I was poring over a most alarming graph. It showed us, using population and participation data, that the number of university applicants was going to fall off a cliff within the next 15 years.

We decided we’d better get ourselves ready for a shrinking sector; that is if we survived the millennium bug.

Over the intervening years, I’ve developed not only my enduring love for power ballads but also a healthy scepticism about attempts to predict the future. So when in 2013 our then CEO called me in alarm to ask whether all students were going to be studying online within the next 10 years, my response was to provide some initial reassurance and then to commission a wide ranging piece of future research.

In collaboration with Ash Futures, University Alliance and a panel of students, Living and Learning in 2034, set out four different scenarios for the higher education sector based on long term trends and key uncertainties. While digital methods of learning featured strongly in the report, each of the scenarios contained some version of blended learning with face-to-face and hands-on learning still an important factor.

In 2019, we also started tracking any potential trend in this area, working with HEPI and YouthSight. As part of a wider survey, we asked both applicants and students what they considered the most useful way for them to learn, giving a range of seven different options including online (webinars and lecture capture, one-on-one online and small online groups), face-to-face (lectures, seminars and one-on-one) and independent learning. Respondents were able to rank these methods of learning from the most to least useful.

In 2019, face-to-face methods of learning were the overwhelming winner with applicants and students. By 2021 this preference had strengthened.

Figure 1: Top ranked most useful learning method, consolidated by mode

Further details of the Unite Students 2021 applicant survey can be found here and the 2019 data is included in The New Realists report by Unite Students and HEPI.

This preference may well change once this cohort starts at university and is able to benefit from the considerable investment that universities have made in online learning over recent years, though it is worth noting that in the 2019 survey students showed an even lower preference for online teaching than applicants. Either way, it represents today’s reality. Those who are due to start at university this autumn value face-to-face teaching very highly.

As a recent article in The Times has reported, most Russell Group universities are promising online lectures this year with cautious promises about seminars, tutorials and labs. Nick Hillman pointed out that universities are facing a real dilemma here, having made promises last year about face-to-face teaching that COVID ultimately made impossible. However, our data shows that applicants’ feelings are very clear on this matter and this will need to be considered in communications to students, especially during clearing.

The drivers behind this preference are also clearly demonstrated in the 2021 survey. When asked what they are most looking forward to about going to university, ‘meeting new people and making friends’ ranked top, more popular even than starting their course. We also found that while 92% of applicants agreed they wanted to feel like they belong at their university, 59% were anxious about fitting in.

Social considerations are a very strong factor in applicants’ attitudes towards university this year, and they are also a source of anxiety for the majority. It will be critical in the transition to university and throughout the first year to find new ways of helping new students engage with their community, because a sense of belonging has been strongly associated with retention. This is especially important for those who are in a minority within their university community and those experiencing ‘imposter syndrome’ as a result of disrupted education and cancellation of external exams.

Taking a longer view, I’ve noticed that technological trends seem to be much easier to predict than social ones. You may have seen the retro-futurist drawings of a housemaid pushing around an accurately predicted vacuum cleaner, or the space-age kitchen from which men seem to be barred. The way in which technology will develop is relatively predictable, but our response to is shaped by social trends which can be a real blind spot.

Young people – and in fact all of us – learn online all the time, but it tends to be a supplement to formal learning: cramming for assessments or reports, immersion in niche interests and practical skills such as video editing, crafts or learning an instrument. There are some interesting trends among teens around self-organised online creative communities, which may be based around open-world games like Minecraft or focused on a particular fandom and are often international in scope. At the moment these seem to sit completely separately from both face-to-face communities and formal learning. How this will all play out in terms of future demand for formal online learning we don’t yet know, but listening carefully to students and potential students is key. On that basis, for the class of 2021 face-to-face is most definitely king. One thing’s for sure, we’ll continue to keep this under close review over the coming year. To quote another late 90s classic, this time by Aerosmith, ‘I don’t want to miss a thing’.

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