The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our education system has been profound and we’re all adapting to new ways of working. Here, Linda Kelly explores the extent to which college students have engaged in online learning….

My current intake of students were mostly born after the year 2000. They are the digital generation.

They have grown up with technology and its impact on almost every aspect of their daily lives.  They have access to an unprecedented amount of information technology, indeed most of them have never been without the internet. 

They are known as ‘Generation Z’, or ‘GenZ’ or ‘zoomers’.  They have also been called the ‘iGeneration’, or ‘iGens’ for short. 

It is estimated that 80% of these teenagers own a mobile phone and use it daily. Many will access their phones over 70 times a day. 

In fact, it often seems like they are glued to their phones and if they were to lose it or break it, this would be the worst thing that could every possibly happen to them ever!

They have grown up with the ‘Internet of Things,’ they are used to household products having microchips and being ‘smart’. They talk to Alexa, or Echo or Siri to ask questions or control household appliances, to turn lights and heating on or off, or to listen to music.

These iGen’ers have also grown-up with digital learning tools integrated into their education.  They often use the same tools for educational purposes as they do for personal purposes. 

In schools and colleges, they have interactive whiteboards, PowerPoint presentations, video clips and interactive media. If they are not sure of something, they ‘google it’ and have access to endless amounts of information. 

So, the dichotomy is, if they are that tech savvy, if they are never parted from a mobile device and internet access, why are they not currently fully engaging in online learning? 

I emailed students from three different cohorts to find out. One replied!  Emails obviously aren’t their thing! 

However, the reply was very positive: “I like online learning because it allows everyone to be involved and speak to the teacher, and I like how we can do it from the comfort of our own home. The only issue I have with it is with some lessons I have a lack of motivation and get easily distracted by other things.”

I also asked students what they thought in a Teams meeting. Most said that they would rather be in college and preferred it. Some said they didn’t like waiting for people to join the online meeting before the lesson could start. Others said that the tech was much quicker at home and things loaded faster. 

They said online learning is not face-to-face. I challenged this, reminding them that our Teams meetings are face-to-face, but most of them don’t turn their cameras on. When asked why, they weren’t really sure. Some said it was because there was no consistency, some teachers made them and some didn’t, but they did admit that when asked to turn cameras on many lie and pretend the camera isn’t working.

In my experience, teaching is moving away from students sitting in lecture halls taking notes, long gone are the days of ‘chalk and talk’. Feedback from my learners suggests that they want to be fully engaged and part of the learning process. The majority of my students learn best by doing and enjoy class discussions and interactive learning environments. They also prefer collaborative learning and sharing ideas and opinions.

So perhaps the issue is with the content of online learning rather than the method of delivery. Although sitting in front of a computer for long periods of time, as has happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, obviously doesn’t help. 

In a physical classroom learning can be more active, students can move around for groupwork activities or to feedback. They go for breaks and lunch together and it is generally more sociable.

It seems to me that it is time to start experimenting, to entice them to engage more. An idea from the University of Ontario involves introducing digital moments into a lesson. A digital moment is a single snapshot into a student’s week, it could be a photo, a quote or a poem, a colour, or a link, in fact anything to describe the person’s week or how they are feeling. 

The research was conducted in four phases and looked at the effectiveness of using digital moments to create authentic online communities. Each phase consisted of sample sizes of between 21 and 26 students and used qualitative methods to chronicle the students’ journeys.

The research identified that digital moments increased student attendance and engagement. It found that students enjoyed interacting with each other and started arriving early for lessons. It noted that digital moments built a sense of community and encouraged social interaction. 

I am going to introduce this once a week to each cohort of my students. Students will be asked to bring a digital moment to share. Cameras will obviously have to be on, and students will have to talk to each other. Their digital moment could be displayed as their background.

The discussion will give them a purpose whilst waiting for others to join the meeting. It will keep them engaged and encourage communication. It can be developed to include an element of competition – best pet photo, best mask, favourite animal etc. 

In my experience, there has been a lack of student engagement in online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Wales, we not only need to resolve issues of access, I think we also need to take a long, hard look at course content and how it is delivered.

I believe there is an urgent need to make digital learning more interactive and more enjoyable. Learning should be fun – let’s make it happen!

  • Linda Kelly is a lecturer in IT and Business at NPTC Group of Colleges, and a student on Yr Athrofa’s Doctorate in Education programme