Going Virtual

Lessons learned in higher education during the exceptional COVID-19-times

By: Susanna Saarinen

After exceptional times caused by the COVID-19-pandemic, we are finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. Restrictions are removed, and life is getting more normal. Face-to-face encounters and travelling (incl. exchange programmes) are possible again. It might be a good time to reflect on the lessons learned in higher education from the prolonged distance teaching and learning phase.  

Peer support is important

At least in Finland, the prevailing discourse on distance learning and its effects on students has been negative. Based on our regular feedback surveys at Tampere University of Applied Sciences, especially young first-year students have had difficult times. Imagine yourself leaving a childhood home and starting your independent, adult life. Anxiously waiting to meet new people that are interested in the same topics as you, make friends, party – and then you end up sitting alone by your computer, putting in extra effort to keep concentrated while staring at the same screen in your small apartment the whole day.  

Nevertheless, there was something that universities could do to lighten the students’ burden during the strict restrictions. For example, some of our degree programmes encouraged their first-year students to create small peer groups that occasionally met face-to-face and studied together. Other students had (digital) informal channels to get – and provide – peer support. Nearly all degree programmes had at least a short orientation period at a campus with specific safety arrangements. During those days, grouping was a special issue, besides study-related themes. Slight effort from the university to help students to build their own networks, and a positive impact on students’ wellbeing was clear. After a long-lasting distance mode and rare social encounters, that may still be worth investing.   

Pros of the “digital leap”

The positive effects of the distance learning period are not mentioned nearly as often. It is important to remember, that not all students have suffered from the restrictions. Many higher education students are adults with other responsibilities, like small children, work, etc. For them, online/distance studies have provided flexibility, and enabled more efficient use of time. By not having to travel or having the possibility to watch a recorded lecture afterwards, might occasionally save your day.  

According to the student feedback, the quality of online teaching has improved after the initial difficulties caused by the sudden lockdown. Teachers have now better digi-pedagogical competences than two and a half years ago. The digital learning environments have developed. Many students also feel that their distance learning skills and self-directedness are now better than in the beginning of the exceptional times. Most students felt that there are both pros and cons in distance learning, and the general wish was to continue partial distance or online learning in the future. Sometimes, online teaching was even considered to work better than contact teaching. In short, the topic of the studies – and the target group – should define the way the studies are implemented.  

How to activate students?

Still, there is room for improvements in online learning. Students hope for more activation and participation alongside teaching and lectures. Polls or quick questionnaires to check that everybody is on the same page, for example. If there are lots of students participating, the discussion might be easier in breakout rooms. Luckily, there are many tools (in Teams or Zoom, or besides them) to use for activating purposes, if the participants are online simultaneously. It would be nice to hear what methods You use to activate students in (online) learning! And how to support the change from a passive recipient to an active learner? Sign up and share your ideas with the community by commenting on this post or writing your own one!   


Ps. In case you are interested in the factors that had a positive or negative impact on studies during exceptional times, please read more on the article based on the first-year bachelor students’ experiences in spring 2021.  

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