Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Digital dunces? Irish universities can do more to integrate online learning

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Data shows Irish students may be generally satisfied with their universities in terms of employment opportunities but the online learning experience can be improved.

Universities in Ireland and the UK rank comparatively poorly for online learning, according to an international study on student satisfaction rates by EY.

The professional services firm worked with Times Higher Education to survey more than 3,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students across eight different regions. Ireland and the UK were taken as one region, while the other seven were the US, Singapore, India, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The survey was carried out during March and April of this year.

The goal of the survey was to find out how satisfied students are with the way their universities are handling digital transformation. Compared to the other seven regions, Irish and UK students reported the lowest level of satisfaction with their institutions’ delivery of online learning.

Students want more efficiency

Many of the global students surveyed indicated they were open to tech changes. In particular, they welcome the more administrative aspects of attending university being handled entirely online. Things like registration and receiving feedback were singled out as being preferable to do digitally.

For Irish students, the survey found that 59pc have commitments outside of their courses, such as caring responsibilities and jobs, meaning flexibility in the way courses are organised is important.

According to Gary Comiskey, partner and EY public sector consulting lead, “It is essential that universities design their courses and administrative elements of the university experience to allow the necessary flexibility.” He added that EY is “already seeing” Irish universities respond to this demand from students with projects such as Ntutorr.

Ntutorr is a national initiative that aims to get students and educators to collaborate together on projects that improve the student experience. The report highlighted other Irish programmes like MyCareerPath.ie, a skills scheme that leverages AI to recommend career, learning and upskilling options for workers and students alike.

Irish students are comparatively low adopters of AI

On the subject of AI, the survey revealed that Irish and UK students have the second-lowest adoption of AI tools in their learning. When asked if they would use tools like ChatGPT, Grammarly, DALL-E and Writesonic, only 36pc said yes. Japanese students were the most likely to reject AI while students in Singapore were the highest adopters at 68pc.

Graduates are mostly employed

EY’s report did find that while overall online delivery may leave a lot to be desired, Irish and UK students do report a high satisfaction level with their choice of university. Nearly three-quarters (70pc) said they were content with their choice compared to the global average of 67pc.

Irish and UK students prioritise career opportunities, with 82pc saying their top priority was improving their job prospects. Another report that was released last week found that the Irish labour market offers strong opportunities for graduates. The Higher Education Authority’s 2022 (HEA) Graduate Outcomes Survey found that 83pc of graduates were in employment nine months after graduation, representing a gradual increase on 2021 and 2020 data. Two-thirds (66pc) of graduates said they thought their course was very relevant or relevant to their current job and 64pc said they would be likely or very likely to do the same course again.

The data also revealed that technological universities have higher employment rates than their counterparts. This is because students from traditional universities are more likely to go into further study after graduation, whereas students from TUs enter the workforce right away. Between 82pc and 87pc of undergrad graduates from TUs are in employment nine months after graduation whereas this figure is between 64pc and 85pc for universities.

Not digital dunces, but must try harder

So, are Irish universities lacking in the online delivery side of things? There is certainly room for improvement and a need for education providers to listen to what students want in terms of digital services – this goes for Irish and UK students as well as global students.

EY’s data reported that 45pc of students globally want to see investment in training teachers to deliver online learning more effectively, while 41pc want better online learning materials. Others (40pc) want more support with digital learning.

Improving universities’ online offerings will improve the student experience and better set them up for the professional world. To that end, “Systems and practices need to be designed with the people they’ll serve in mind, rather than fitting in around existing structures,” remarked Dr Mark Glynn, EY’s higher education lead.

“It must focus on students first and foremost, but to be successful they also need to work for faculty, researchers, administrative and support staff.” Echoing the report’s mention of tools like MyCareerPath.ie, Glynn said that universities should embrace programmes like these as analytics and AI can be used to find and support students by designing personal education plans.

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