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Its time to talk tech experience and capability

  • 22 May 2024
  • By Michelle Morgan
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Dr Michelle Morgan, Dean of Students at the University of East London (UEL). This piece is a case study of students’ tech experience at UEL.

There is a lot of discussion at the moment about AI and how we navigate this use of technology with our students.  Technology Foundations for Twenty-First Century Higher Education , which is a collection of essays, edited by Mary Curnock Cook CBE and sponsored by LearningMate, brings together leading Edtech voices to explain how technology is already improving higher education and how much more it could potentially do to transform the student experience for the better.

However, in having this discussion, we also need to be mindful of our incoming students’ prior experience with technology, including the type of technology used (e.g. mobile phone, laptop) and their experience with various software and platforms (e.g. Microsoft Word and VLEs). We can access this essential information by using a dedicated course Pre-arrival Academic questionnaire (PAQ), which is a tool to get students reflecting on their previous learning experience and upcoming studies, and that enables us to identify and bridge any gaps of our diverse incoming student body.

Is our students’ learning tech experienced?

Without a doubt, the pandemic brought the virtual learning environment (VLE) to the fore in higher education, both in terms of use and in its importance for enabling students to access learning. However, as  I talk to colleagues across the sector, there is an assumption that the same level of use of the VLE happened in schools and colleges (especially schools) during the pandemic and that this was retained after lockdown was lifted, and students returned to in-person study. This was not the case.

As Covid restrictions were lifted and ‘normality’ resumed, so did the main methods of accessing learning materials, especially in schools, namely a course textbook and handwritten notes – as the report Prior learning experience, study expectations of A-Level and BTEC students on entry to university and the impact of Covid19 undertaken across three universities between 2019 and 2021 highlights. This finding has been repeated in the PAQs undertaken since 2021 at the University of East London with all our students. As Figure 1 highlights, although VLE use in schools and colleges of those in study during the pandemic (2020/21) was higher than those in study prior to it (2018/19 and 2019/20), the use noticeably decreased post-pandemic (2021/22 and 2022/23). Only half of respondents had experience accessing information via a VLE and two-fifths via E-sources outside the VLE. Worryingly, of those in study in 2022/23, only 26.8% had experience of using libraries to access information. These methods are central to university study.

Figure 1: All learning materials accessed by UEL students in school/college study prior to, during and after the pandemic

Sue Williamson, Chief Executive of The Schools, Students and Teachers network, says:

This is not a surprise as the GCSE and ‘A’ level teaching remains dictating information as the number one delivery model with many students limiting their reading to the course textbooks and not reading more widely. This is model is due to the accountability regime in secondary education that has meant that teachers and school leaders are taking a “belt and braces” approach to passing examinations resulting in schools becoming examination factories, with students being taught how to pass examinations rather than learning how to think’.

When postgraduate masters (PGT) students were asked about their experience of using a VLE, 32% stated they had limited or no experience. This should not be a surprise, especially for those students who have been out of study for a while and have not experienced a VLE in their previous study.

Type of software and tech experience

If we are to provide a successful bridge into higher education, as well as understanding prior learning experiences, we also need to understand the type of software and tech experience of our incoming students and not make assumptions that because they may have social tech experience that they have the same experience with learning tech. We also need to be mindful that our overseas domiciled (OS Dom) students may use different software and tech to those used in the UK and within the UK higher education setting.

In our September 2023 PAQ, we further explored this area with our new students. Figure 2 highlights that a substantial number of undergraduate and postgraduate taught overseas students had limited or no experience with using One Drive and Outlook compared to UK-domiciled respondents. For UK-domiciled undergraduates, 40 per cent had limited or no experience using Excel and 51 per cent withusing Skype.

Figure 2: Limited or no experience with software and platforms of UEL students by level of study and domiciled status.

Regarding the main type of technology incoming students intended to use to access their learning information at university, Figure 3 highlights that a greater number of undergraduate and postgraduate overseas students intended to use their mobile phone and university computer facilities compared to those who were UK domiciled.

Figure 3: Main source of tech to access learning materials of UEL students

If students are reliant on their phones or will use it to quickly access university information and systems, then we need to consider a number of things that can affect access. This can include how information and navigation systems look on a mobile phone, but also the type and age of the phone and the monthly data package a student has.

Type and age of phone

When the type of phone is looked at, UK-domiciled undergraduate and postgraduate taught students are more likely to use an iPhone, whereas for overseas students it is Android (Table 1). The use of Windows-based phones cited was minimal as it is a discontinued mobile operating system. It is important for institutions to explore whether the software and platforms adopted by universities are fully compatible with different types of phones.

Table 1: Type of mobile phone by domicile status of UG and PGT UEL students

When the age of the phone was explored, the majority had phones that were less than two years old, but a substantial number were over two years old which could impact on ease of accessing information.

Figure 4: Age of phone of UG and PGT UEL students

Data package per month

During the pandemic, Digital Poverty and Inequality in the UK were major issues in enabling students to access learning, whether it was being able to afford the tech or having adequate mobile and broadband packages to access the internet. When students were asked about their mobile phone packages, over two-fifths of UK domiciled at undergraduate and postgraduate level had over 20GB per month, compared to a fifth of those who were overseas domiciled (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: Monthly data package by domiciled status of UG and PGT UEL students


Understanding these differences allows us to join up our digital strategy with our learning and teaching one. With the diversification of our students comes diversification of tech and software experience and capability. But as national and international digital learning expert Professor Debbie Holley from Bournemouth University says in the A-Level and BTEC report ‘digital is only one of the challenges all ‘transition’ stakeholders in Higher Education need to consider and step up to’. We need to ensure we get all elements right to enable the progression and success of our students.

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