Positives of virtual learning
Covid-19 has caused a sudden shift away from the classroom that has changed higher education dramatically over the last 12 months. Born out of an emergency need to keep things going during lockdown, learning has been shifted online, initiating a mass adoption of virtual teaching, whereby learning is delivered remotely via various digital platforms and tools.
Despite the abrupt pivot to virtual learning and teaching, many teaching staff across the HE sector have reflected positively on the benefits gained from the online shift. For example, the need to change teaching habits, engage with new technology, and think differently about student engagement has forced many staff working in HE to step out of their comfort zone and develop their digital teaching skills. For students, time and space barriers have been removed, allowing learning to be more accessible, more flexible, and more supportive of improved digital communication and collaboration skills.
Barriers to virtual learning
Although there have been some clear benefits to the virtual learning and teaching pivot, it has also further exposed some of the inequalities experienced by students when engaging with online learning. A critical issue is digital poverty. According to the Office for Students, digital poverty can be defined as an inability to fully interact with the digital world. From a learning perspective, this can happen for a variety of reasons. These reasons centre on a lack of access to the digital infrastructure items which are considered as core to virtual learning. These are:
- appropriate hardware
- appropriate software
- reliable access to the internet
- technical support and repair when required
- a trained teacher or instructor
- an appropriate study space
If access to only one of these items is problematic then a student is said to be experiencing digital poverty. As teachers, the extent to which we can ameliorate access problems to the above items is somewhat limited. However, there are some important steps we can take to support students that may be experiencing digital poverty.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
There is a high level of learner variability among the diverse groups of students that make up modern universities. Learner variability represents all of those things that may influence a student’s engagement with, and approach to their learning (Meyer et al., 2014). As such, it can be useful to think of the sources of variability as barriers to effective learning.
Some sources of learner variability are obvious. For example, a dyslexic student for whom processing and remembering information is a challenge, would engage with and approach learning in a very different way to a non-dyslexic student. However, some sources of learner variability are less obvious, but nonetheless must be planned for. In this regard, digital poverty is a significant source of learner variability when it comes to online learning, because it provides a potential barrier.
Fortunately, UDL is an approach to learning and teaching that is based around planning for learner variability by incorporating a variety of options to allow it to be accessible and inclusive for all students. Reflecting an awareness of the unique needs of each student, UDL supports the creation of a customisable learning experience by removing barriers from the learning environment (Meyer et al., 2014).
Barriers to learning are removed via the application of the UDL principles. Two of these principles in particular could be potentially critical in eliminating the negative influence of digital poverty.
Engagement and representation
The principle of engagement encourages teachers to present learning in a variety of ways to support the maintenance of interest and motivation for learning, since students will differ markedly in this aspect. For example, spontaneity and novelty will highly engage some students, while others will be disengaged, or even frightened, by such approaches, preferring a set routine. Some students might prefer lone working, while others may prefer to work with peers (Meyer et al., 2014).
The principle of representation encourages teachers to present information to students in a variety of ways because each will differ in how they perceive and understand information presented to them. For example, some students may understand information more efficiently and effectively through visual or auditory means rather than printed text. Furthermore, multiple representations of content allow students to make connections within and between concepts, supporting an enhanced transfer of learning (Meyer et al., 2014).
Easing the burden of digital poverty
Providing multiple means of engagement and representation is an essential response to learner variability. However, multiple options according to these principles may also help to ease the burden of digital poverty.
For example, a synchronous teaching session may well require a high-speed internet connection, with audio and video sharing options also likely to require higher-bandwidth connections. For a student in digital poverty, access to high bandwidths and connection speeds, may not always be possible. In addition, an appropriate space in which to participate in a synchronous session, free from distractions may also be a challenge.
As such, from a digital poverty perspective, it is important for us to think about how key learning points from a session of this nature could be delivered in alternative ways, using alternative learning resources and materials. For example, a possible alternative means of engagement and representation in this scenario could be to pre-record the key elements of the session as a short podcast or screencast which could be downloaded to a mobile phone. The shortened, downloadable format would not require any ‘live streaming’ for which a powerful internet connection and/or large amount of mobile data would be needed. The option of watching/listening to key learning points through the mobile phone via earphones would also lessen the requirement for a quiet study space. This example is not the only way to provide flexible options in this scenario of course, it just serves as an example as to how some aspects of digital poverty may be overcome by applying UDL principles.
If podcast/screencast options are provided in advance alongside other easily accessible study materials, such as notes, summaries, slides, images, figures etc then the student can access a trove of materials that can support their learning despite their digital poverty potentially limiting their participation in the synchronous aspects.
As well as helping to ease some aspects of digital poverty, the alternative options mentioned above may also better support modern student learning preferences. For example, the mobile phone is the primary means of internet access for the iGeneration (those born after 1995) (Twenge, 2017), which according to HESA, in 2019/20 accounted for ~70% of students enrolled on HE courses in the UK.
Among the iGeneration, Statista report that ~98% have access to a smartphone, with a fifth of this age group spending up to 7 hours per day using their phone according to Ofcom. The centrality of the mobile phone in the lives of many modern students, means that its position as a key mechanism for engaging with learning cannot be understated.
A significant proportion of mobile phone use among students is dedicated to social media use. For example, a recent survey by broadband provider Hyperoptic revealed that students spend ~14 hours per week using social media, with ≥ 75% of students regularly using Instagram and Facebook, >70% using Snapchat and ~65% using WhatsApp according to UCAS. Therefore, as well being uploaded to the VLE, sharing of learning resources via social media may reflect modern student habits and preferences, as well as offering flexible means of engagement and representation.
Although HE teachers may not be able to completely eradicate the factors causing digital poverty among students, there are some steps which can be taken to ease some of the burden. Applying the UDL principles to the delivery of teaching sessions, allowing flexible ways to engage with, understand and perceive information and subsequent learning, can provide a useful starting point.
Kevin L. Merry is the lead for academic development at De Montfort University, and the founder of the UDL UK and Ireland (UDL-UKI) network. The purpose of the UDL-UKI network is, to identify, promote and support the development of approaches, models, tools, and practices that enable effective UDL implementation in UK HE, especially following the pivot to virtual teaching.
Meyer, A, Rose, DH, & Gordon, DT 2014, Universal design for learning: Theory and practice, CAST Professional Publishing, Wakefield, MA.
Twenge, JM 2017, iGen: Why today's super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy--and completely unprepared for adulthood--and what that means for the rest of us, Simon & Schuster, New York.