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Perceptions of Online and On-Campus Learning Among University Students – Some Findings

December 5, 2021
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A few weeks back, before we knew about the Omicron variant, my workplace announced (perhaps a bit optimistically) that we’d be returning to fully campus-based teaching from January 2022, with no need for social distancing measures. While this may have been welcome news for many students and staff, I thought it might also be really unwelcome news for others. All of our teaching is currently taking place online, with live, synchronous lessons supported by asynchronous tasks – actually very similar to what we did in pre-Covid days except it’s a virtual classroom. This has meant that many students who don’t normally live near the campus have been able to access our courses without having to do any travelling. Moving to on-campus delivery could, therefore, be quite an inconvenience for some of them, to say the least. I was also curious to know how our students felt about the whole online experience in a wider sense, and the extent to which they felt that studying online either diminished or enhanced their learning. So I put together a little survey and made it available to all students who are currently studying with us, and who would “normally” (whatever that means nowadays) be on one of our campuses in the West of Scotland. The university is no longer considering a full return to campus in January anyway, so the survey results are, to some extent, moot. However, I still think they reveal some interesting findings, so I thought I might share them here as they may be of some interest to other people who are working in similar contexts.

The Survey

The aim of the survey was simply to gain some understanding of students’ views on online and on-campus learning, and to establish how positively disposed (or otherwise) they are towards the idea of a full return to campus. 47 responses were received, with respondents cutting across the following four programmes/courses:

  • BA ESL (including students doing single modules from this programme as English language supoport)
  • Various French and Spanish modules (primarily students on the BA Education programme)
  • Doctoral Induction Programme (DIP)

Of the 47 responses received, 14 (30% of total responses) were from students on the MEd TESOL programme, 8 (17%) from BA ESL, 19 (40%) from Languages modules, and 5 (11%) from the DIP. These numbers may seem small, but we are a very small department so, without making any claims about statistical significance, I think it is fair to say that these findings reflect some widely-held views across the different cohorts. The survey itself consisted of a total of 10 questions, and took each respondent an average of just under seven minutes to complete. It included a combination of closed/multiple-choice and open-ended questions. Collated results of all responses are presented in the section below, followed by a deeper analysis of the findings. In presenting the results here, anonymity is preserved by removing any data that could identify individual students.

Presentation of Findings

In answer to a multiple-choice question asking how they felt about studying online, just over half (51%) said that they prefer this format. 23% stated that they would prefer to study on-campus, and the same number selected the “I don’t mind” option. When asked to select the biggest advantage of studying online, the most popular response was safety from Covid-19 (32%), followed by convenience (28%), then cost (23%). 13% chose flexibility, and only one respondent (2%) chose more effective teaching methods as the biggest advantage of studying online. When asked to choose the biggest disadvantage of online learning, 32% replied that it requires more self-discipline, 28% selected distance from their classmates and lecturers, and 21% selected a lack of regular, live interaction. Of the remaining options, 15% chose lack of access to other university facilities, and 4% selected and less effective teaching methods.

With regard to studying on-campus, the most commonly-selected advantage was greater/better interaction with classmates and lecturers (45%), followed by closeness to classmates/lecturers (32%), with the third most-selected advantage being easy access to other university facilities (15%). Only 4% chose a more fixed timetable/routine, and the same number chose more effective teaching methods. By far the most common perceived disadvantage of studying on-campus was the risk of Covid-19 infection (41%), followed by additional cost (e.g. the need to commute or re-locate – 21%) and a lack of flexibility (20%). 9% of respondents opted for inconvenience as the biggest disadvantage of studying on-campus, and the smallest number of respondents (7%) chose teaching methods.

Participants were also asked to rate the proposed full return to campus on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 meaning they fully supported the idea and 1 meaning they were completely opposed to the idea. The average response to this question was 2.62, which implies a slightly negative but somewhat ambivalent attitude towards a return to campus. However, further analysis shows that only seven students (15%) gave a neutral response of 3, suggesting that most respondents hold quite strong views on this matter. 30% gave a response of 4 or 5, indicating that they are in favour of a return to campus, compared to 56% who opposed it with a response of 1 or 2. Of those who opposed the idea, 30% indicated the strength of their opposition with a response of 1.

In addition to asking limited-response questions, the survey also asked students to comment on the advantages and disadvantages of both online and on-campus learning. Several students stated that safety from Covid-19 was a key advantage of studying online, even for those who normally prefer studying on-campus, as these quotes demonstrate:

“I am still very nervous regarding Covid 19 so am anxious about campus learning due to this.”

“Online learning will be helpful to reduce the risk of covid 19 especially people having other health issues.”

“I do prefer on-campus learning but I don’t want to attend the classes physically until the covid situation is over.”

As well as lowering Covid transmission risks, cost, convenience and general accessibility were all also mentioned as perceived benefits:

“Online learning also is cheaper than study on-campus.”

“It is convenient and cost-effective for students with children as they do not need to apply for childcare grants while studying online.”

“Online learning makes the course more accessible to all. Also, no need to miss classes if self-isolating.”

“Personally I find [online learning] more advantageous due to family/work commitments at the moment.”

For some, the convenience of online learning was such that a return to campus would be highly problematic, due to other commitments and/or physical distance from the university:

“At the moment, I am teaching between 15 and 25 hours a week…so would ideally need to study online if possible.”

“It would be a big move to relocate from [outside Scotland]”

“I currently feel unsafe travelling long distances and would be required to travel for over an hour on the train which gives me too much anxiety right now.”

As well as having to travel from other parts of the UK, some students are currently accessing their programme from other countries, which is reflected in their comments:

“It would be impossible for me to attend classes if they were on campus.”

“It’s not convenient to…study on-campus for the students like us.”

“ and more ecpenses (sic) will make me become more difficult to go to Scotland.”

When commenting on the quality of learning and teaching, a number of students suggested that direct, on-campus interaction would improve engagement and enhance the overall learning experience:

“Good to know your classmates in-person, have live socialising, especially when doing group coursework”

“When doing group tasks it would be far better being in person.”

“…it is even more important for face-to-face teaching with languages as we aren’t getting the full learning experience, of seeing the other person we speak to in our other language(s).”

“I pay way less attention online, during most classes I am on my phone.”

One student, who had travelled from abroad in order to study, felt that online learning limited opportunities to benefit fully from the wider experience of being a student in Scotland:

“…because the point is to be into the culture of the English speaking world, I only see disadvantages to study online. We don’t have enough interaction with other students or teachers and stay in our room instead of discovering how it is to learn abroad. On top of that it is more difficult to socialise or make new friends.”

When reacting to the university’s planned return to campus in January, most comments made reference to Covid-19, with a majority of respondents citing this as a reason to keep teaching online:

As I’m having health issues I would prefer online learning.”

“I would feel too anxious to go on campus with no social distancing”.

“I am still very anxious regarding covid as I have family that were previously shielding. I feel that online learning is more flexible at the moment due to my commitments at home.”

“I really concern about the safety situation for on-campus teaching since COVID-19 has an obviously high infectiousness.”

For those international students who are currently accessing their programme from their own country, the prospect of travelling to the UK during a pandemic is particularly unappealing:

“I am afraid of being caught in covid.”

“It is unsafe esp. for international students. it will bring about much trouble”

“I think that in 2022, if students from different areas came back to UWS, the risk of Covid-19 infection would be higher.”

It seems that even those students who prefer studying on-campus also have reservations; most comments in favour of returning to campus contained some kind of qualifying statement, either suggesting only a partial return, or the use of social distancing measures to minimise the risk of infection:

“I am ok with on campus study but definitely would prefer social distancing and all safety measures to be followed”.

“It would seem sensible to retain some social distancing measures if in class teaching is resumed. To go [back to] pre-pandemic teaching while there is still a pandemic in the country seems risky.”

“I agree to the opening of on-campus teaching, and I believe that it is very important to do so. However, I think that there should still remain some forms of social distancing, or at least personal protection (such as facemasks, hand gel etc) to be used where possible inside and out of classes.

“COVID-19 is still very present in Scotland and I would not feel safe with a full campus return with no social distancing.”

“I worry about the spreading of the virus and would feel more safe if we had a mix of online and in person lectures.”

Two comments suggested that a return to campus would enhance the learning experience, expressing a preference for this, regardless of social distancing:

“I would love to be on campus full time as I struggle learning from home.”

“As an international student, I came here to have real studies abroad, not to be in my bedroom without social interactions while parties take place without any safety measures. I don’t think teaching face to face is more dangerous than any other activity.”

Analysis of Findings

The above short-answer responses and supporting comments reveal some interesting findings about participants’ perceptions of online and on-campus learning. With a slight majority declaring a preference for online learning it would appear that, for most students, the move to online-only delivery has, if anything, been a positive one. However, it is important to remain mindful of the reasons that students give for preferring to study online: safety, convenience and cost are by far the most popular benefits, whereas only one student suggested that online learning offers more effective teaching methods. Similarly small numbers of respondents selected teaching methods when asked to consider the advantages and disadvantages of on-campus learning, though 45% did choose better interaction with classmates and lecturers as the main advantage of studying on-campus. These findings therefore suggest that, methodologically, there is little perceived difference in the effectiveness of online and on-campus learning. However, many students do appear to value classroom interaction as a means of facilitating learning, and also seem to associate this more with classroom-based learning than with online learning.

With particular regard to the proposed return to campus in January 2022, responses indicate a preference to remain online: a clear majority are against studying on-campus from January, and 30% of all respondents are “completely opposed” to this idea. However, analysis of the comments relating to this question suggest that many students would be in favour of a return to campus if Covid-19 was less prevalent. Risk of transmission is the biggest concern, and many students suggest that they would be in favour of a return to campus if sufficient social distancing measures were in place to make them feel safe.

While it is possible, then, to point at the 51% preference for online learning and the 56% opposition to returning to campus, and to conclude that online learning is our students’ preferred mode of studying, I feel this would be an over-simplistic interpretation of the data. We cannot forget that a global pandemic is still prevalent throughout the world, and students’ responses take this into account. Furthermore, for those students who are not currently living in the West of Scotland, the financial, logistical and other implications of relocating mid-course are understandably very unappealing. In fact, given the wider context, we should perhaps be surprised that only 51% stated a preference for online learning, and that as many as 30% support a return to campus with no social distancing. If anything, these statistics perhaps suggest an enduring preference for classroom-based learning, all other things being equal. Given the supporting comments provided, it seems fair to assume that respondents would be overwhelmingly in favour of a return to campus if Covid-19 was no longer an issue.

Further analysis also reveals interesting differences between students on different programmes. The MEd TESOL caters for a mix of home and international students, and a majority of those who responded to this survey either live outside the West of Scotland or outside the UK altogether. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, a much bigger majority of this cohort (73%) stated that they prefer to study online, with only 13% preferring to study on-campus and the same number giving no preference. As with the whole group, concerns about Covid-19 are common among this cohort, but numerous comments also relate to the practicalities and costs involved in travelling and relocating – in addition to concerns about international travel and the various Covid-related restrictions that currently inhibit this. For the DIP, which caters exclusively for international students who are studying online from their own country, all respondents stated a preference for studying online, with safety and cost being the two main reasons. 80% of respondents from this cohort were opposed to the idea of moving on-campus in January 2022.

Interestingly, responses from the above two cohorts contrast markedly with those from students who are studying on BA ESL modules: three-quarters of students from this cohort who completed the survey said that they would prefer to study on-campus. Reasons for this related primarily to a desire for more interaction, with a quarter of respondents also selecting more effective teaching methods as the biggest advantage of studying on-campus. 75% of respondents from this cohort are in favour of a return to campus, with one giving a neutral response and one stating they are opposed. However, even this respondent stated a preference for on-campus learning if Covid-19 was not a factor. It is worth noting that most students on BA ESL modules are from outside the UK but, unlike many of our postgraduate students, they have physically moved to Scotland and the majority are living on-campus in student accommodation. For these students, reasons for studying in Scotland often go beyond simply attending classes: they are here to engage with and benefit from the wider on-campus experience of studying at a UK university. It is therefore unsurprising if they feel somewhat short-changed by the need to study online, particularly if they are witnessing or participating in social activities where no Covid restrictions are being applied.

The most mixed responses come from students who are studying Languages (French or Spanish) modules. Most of these are home students who are currently living in the West of Scotland. There appears to be a slight preference for online study among this cohort, with 38% in favour of studying online, 24% preferring to be on-campus and a further 38% giving no preference. A somewhat larger proportion are opposed to the idea of returning to campus in January, however (48%), with 33% in favour. Comments from this group suggest that a return to campus in January might be better received if social distancing measures were in place.

Further Discussion, Conclusions and Recommendations

A key finding from this survey is that our students appear to prefer studying online, and a majority are opposed to the idea of returning on-campus in January with no social distancing measures. However, it is worth stressing that very few students prefer studying online for educational reasons; indeed, very little mention is made of the effectiveness of one mode of teaching over another. Instead, students who indicate a preference for online learning cite practical issues such as safety from Covid, convenience and cost. There is also a clear indication that students associate studying on-campus with increased levels of interaction and engagement, along with a perception that online learning is a rather solitary pursuit that requires greater self-discipline and offers few opportunities for meaningful engagement with staff and students. It would therefore be wrong to assume that students prefer online learning per se; there are clearly elements of campus-based learning that students value highly and would wish to benefit from if circumstances allowed. Having said that, the non-educational benefits of studying online appear to override any benefits of studying on-campus in the current climate, and most students would not welcome a return to campus any time soon.

Another important finding from this survey is that responses vary considerably across different programmes. For those cohorts that contain large numbers of students who are accessing their course from outside the West of Scotland (and, in many cases, from outside the UK), the prospect of having to relocate in January entails travelling at a time when travel restrictions are unpredictable, and which brings with it the additional costs of quarantining etc. The risk to individuals of Covid infection is also significantly increased by making long journeys, and this is clearly a concern for many students. While a number of respondents from these cohorts identified some benefits of being in Scotland and studying on-campus, findings suggest that the majority are reasonably happy with the quality of delivery they are receiving online. It therefore seems unnecessary to disrupt their programme by forcing them to take action that would be highly inconvenient, expensive and potentially dangerous.

On the other hand, for students on English language modules – who are already here physically, who are broadly in favour of studying on-campus, and who would face little or no inconvenience if required to attend classes in-person – it may actually be preferable to consider moving these modules on-campus sooner rather than later. However, Covid-19 is still an issue, and even students who are keen to study on-campus expressed concerns about a lack of social distancing. This was also a major concern for students on Languages modules, who appear to be slightly in favour of remaining online. Of course, if social distancing measures involve maintaining physical distance and wearing masks in the classroom, this creates rather obvious pedagogical limitations, particularly with regard to language teaching, where meaningful communication and interaction is paramount.

There’s no doubt that the whole online vs. on-campus thing is far from straightforward, and many different factors need to be taken into consideration when evaluating the merits of each. However, it also seems pretty clear to me that most of these factors are practical and context-driven, rather than based on any universal educational principles. Reasons for studying online are largely about safety, convenience, accessibility and cost. These are all perfectly legitimate factors to consider, and widening access is a key aim for higher education institutions in Scotland. But few students, if any, seem to be suggesting that online learning is more effective than classroom-based learning – or, indeed, vice-versa. Maybe this implies that good teachers can make learning effective whatever the delivery mode – perhaps we can be proud of the fact that, despite the sudden and hugely disruptive switch to online learning that Covid caused, the perceived quality of teaching seems to have been largely unaffected. However, we also need to recognise that even students who are happy studying online at the moment still seem to value the enhanced human interaction that comes with sharing the same physical space, and regard this as being beneficial to the learning process. Convenience, comfort and cost, on the other hand, do not have that same educational value. Looking more strategically then, educational institutions should think carefully before deciding to replace any classroom-based activity with online alternatives on a permanent basis.

  1. Gemma Archer permalink

    Some really interesting insights, Steve, thanks for sharing! While a teacher, not a student, I am also one of those who is thankful that we will continue working online for a little while longer. Not yet ready to be plunged back into the crammed lifts and corridors and classrooms full of coughing and sneezing that were once the norm, especially while Covid continues to be so prevalent. I do really feel for the international students who are here in Scotland but not getting the ‘full’ student experience. My heart really goes out to them.

    • I agree with you Gemma. Also, I feel it’s a shame that in-class learning can’t continue for now, but it’s important to keep everyone safe.

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