In 2020, universities moved to online learning – three lessons from the student experience

For young people who were in college at the height of the COVID pandemic, the college experience was suddenly dramatically different from what they expected.

Teaching has quickly moved online, with students forced to adapt to using digital tools to complete their learning at home. Those who looked forward to campus life instead saw their social and extracurricular activities curtailed. During this time, internship and placement opportunities were often lost.

It has become and remains important to understand the impact of these changes on university students. In my research during the pandemic, I explored the effects of this shift to virtual learning on the student experience.

Here are three key insights from my research, in which I interviewed 349 university students from across the UK.


This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our 20s and 30s. From the challenges of starting a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or simply making friends as adults. The articles in this series explore questions and provide answers as we navigate this turbulent time in life.

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1. Students want interactive online learning

A theme that emerged from several participants was that online teaching should be more interactive. According to one respondent:

It is not enough to simply place the course materials on a VLE [virtual learning environment] and assume it is a suitable replacement for a taught experience.

Another said educators should “be more interactive with students outside of just providing digital lectures,” noting that this could incorporate online communication tools or video conferencing apps “to ensure there is [are] another kind of personal relationship being created”.

Similarly, another student reported the creation of “more opportunities for student interaction” and “a better online community.”

Recent research has shown that there can be a lack of motivation among students when studying online. To solve this problem, teachers could use real-time survey tools such as Mentimeter and Kahoot!, which can make online learning more engaging and interactive.

2. Digital education must be inclusive

Some female students have faced greater challenges than their male counterparts with the shift to virtual learning. Adult female students were the most affected, with many noting that additional responsibilities, such as caring for children or disabled family members, made things more difficult.

One respondent spoke of the difficulty of “finding the time to do university work in a full, busy and noisy household”. Another said:

The university hasn’t been very good with students who have families. I’ve had exams with a toddler hanging from my hip. It would have been nice if I was a student without children, but I feel like no one really addressed the challenges we faced as students with a young family at home.

A bird's eye view of a group of university students working together.
COVID has changed the traditional college experience, at least temporarily.
Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Some adult female students did not feel equipped enough to use e-learning tools, commenting, for example, that “the older generation needs to be more technologically prepared”.

Another student pointed to the cost of the devices and noted that “it seems like if you don’t have a laptop, you’re going to have a hard time passing.”

Instead of assuming everyone will be properly equipped, universities should ensure students have the knowledge, support and digital resources needed for online learning and assessments. Ensuring that students have the correct hardware and software, as well as internet access, is essential.

Access to technology should be distributed equitably, with particular attention given to students from disadvantaged backgrounds and international students.

In the meantime, universities that do not already do so should consider offering flexible learning opportunities, such as the ability to attend live virtual classes or listen to pre-recorded lectures.

3. International students may need special consideration

Pandemic-induced changes to the college experience have been particularly challenging for international students.

International students mentioned issues such as lack of access to suitable study areas, not knowing where to go for mental health support, feeling confined and isolated, difficulty focus, lack of direction and the difficulty of being away from their families at home affected by COVID. Comments included:

Being away from my family has caused me so much stress and depression that I can’t focus clearly on my studies.

We paid the tuition for the help, not to “find it out”.

Although universities struggled to communicate with international students during this period, my research suggests that in many cases these messages were lost in translation and support was not adequate.

In times of crisis, university communication with international students must improve. Universities have a duty of care and responsibility to international students, which should include helping them adjust to academic demands, as well as prioritizing their mental health and well-being.

The path to follow

Some students wanted to continue learning online, or at least saw the potential benefits of the digital model.

In general, it’s been pretty nice not being on campus because not only has it cut down on train ride times…I’m someone who much prefers to work alone, so not having other people as a distraction was a good thing.

Students who reported having some level of social anxiety, for example, also preferred the numerical model.

But a number of students felt the on-campus experience was preferable to online learning. One said that “human relationships and face-to-face interaction remains the unique trait that the online world cannot achieve”. Others said:

Going entirely online would not benefit many students, otherwise we would not have chosen the option of coming to a traditional university.

I love the social aspect of going to college and face-to-face teaching. [With online learning] I feel like I’m not learning anything, just memorizing information.

Universities have now resumed face-to-face teaching. Some may return to on-campus learning completely, while many may continue with a hybrid model. Which is better is hard to know. From my research and that of others, it is clear that different students have different preferences.

Nevertheless, this information will hopefully be useful to universities that will continue to teach fully or partially online. More broadly, findings about university students’ experiences during the pandemic could help universities better manage crises in the future.

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