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Survey Report

Survey Report: Student Perceptions of Online Learning in Higher Education During COVID-19

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of college students made the shift from in-person to virtual learning in 2020. In this survey report, SYKES discovers how students felt about online learning after making the switch.

While many students were already familiar with virtual learning, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed online education from an option into a necessity. In the early days of the outbreak, instructors needed to rapidly adapt their coursework for remote learning as millions of college students were sent home to learn on their laptops.

This abrupt transition came with many unknowns, though for some students, the switch to online learning marked an improvement — perhaps surprisingly so — from previous in-person learning experiences.

While many colleges and universities transitioned studies to an online format at the onset of the pandemic, their approaches were largely designed to accommodate a temporary fix. As the pandemic persisted, it became clear that the need for distance learning options would continue, presenting instructors with the challenge of creating online coursework that would effectively serve students for many semesters to come.

With students facing so many difficulties in the path of the fall semester, we wondered: How did virtual learning affect their educational experience? To learn more about student perceptions of how the 2020 fall semester fared, SYKES utilized the third-party platform Pollfish to survey 1,500 U.S. college students ages 18+ whose coursework (some or all) had been moved online this past fall in response to COVID-19.

Building a Solid Foundation for Virtual Learning

To succeed at virtual learning, schools first needed to select learning platforms to best serve their students and instructors. With an incredible number of new apps popping up at every corner, and a plethora of technology concerns to address, this task was no small feat.

In SYKES’ 2020 report on the most popular Learning Management System (LMS) apps during COVID-19, we found that apps like Google Classroom and Canvas Student experienced tremendous growth in raw downloads during peak lockdown months of March and April. The two platforms, among several other household LMS names, consistently grew in popularity again as the fall 2020 semester began.

While each app or platform had its pros and cons, there were several features that appeared to be necessities for most colleges and universities as distance learning continued into a second academic year. Unsurprisingly, most of these features involved collaboration capabilities.

Our survey respondents indicated that features like live chat and interactive whiteboards were of chief importance, illustrating a continued need for collaboration and teamwork to assist in successful learning. As many students faced ongoing social isolation, this collaboration not only fostered a sense of classroom “community,” it also provided an outlet to connect with peers in a similar fashion to what they would experience during in-person learning.

Of course, while students indicated certain preferences for their learning platforms, instructor preparedness played a critical role in launching those programs successfully.

In April 2020, a survey conducted by found that 75% of university and college presidents felt that their biggest challenge with the online switch was training faculty, while 50% said the availability of technology was a barrier to success. When it came to implementing virtual learning tools for the fall semester, we found that 96% of students felt that their instructors adapted to the virtual shift either adequately or very well, while 95% of students felt that their instructors were either somewhat or very familiar with the selected tools.

Whether the spring semester offered valuable insights for potential improvements or instructors simply found their groove in the switch to online instruction, these positive sentiments from students show that increased preparedness and attentive instructors made an impact.

A Challenging Semester Calls for Greater Support

While the right online learning platform makes a tremendous impact on a student’s experience with distance education, having support for these platforms may be an even greater concern for students suddenly finding themselves logging into classes at home.

Among the challenges students faced this semester, we found that the lack of in-person interaction with both instructors and classmates proved to be the most difficult to overcome. However, in another remarkable figure, only 14% reported that they did not learn as well in a virtual environment.

The increased need for virtual collaboration and the implementation of new tools also meant that schools needed to mobilize a robust plan for technical support. While universities might have a large IT department, the transition to online coursework presented new platforms to troubleshoot without the ability to stop by the department in person to demonstrate the issue.

Here, our respondents gave overwhelmingly high ratings for their institution’s technical support capabilities, with more than a quarter of them giving a perfect five-star rating. Beyond those high marks though, a portion of students (28%) indicated being less satisfied with the support they received for virtual learning tools. With this support gap identified, IT departments will need to maintain their commitments to providing a seamless tech experience during online learning — which in turn provides a seamless education experience for students and instructors.

Beyond a need for technical support, students also sought increased support from their instructors. Unable to forge an in-person connection with their professors, students looked for ways to interact that would mimic the typical experience of in-person learning.

In the eyes of many students, instructors appeared to deliver the next best thing to in-person support, with many offering virtual office hours (nearly 90%) and recording classes for on-demand viewing (nearly 80%).

Even prior to the pandemic, instructor feedback was delivered in a variety of methods and was largely dependent on instructor preference. While some preferred to deliver feedback in person, others wrote lengthier comments on submitted documents or used commenting functionalities within an LMS on an assignment.

As for our respondents’ favorite and most used LMS platform, Google Classroom, one feature allows instructors to attach feedback in the form of a Google Doc, a Word or PowerPoint file, or even video files, the latter of which was our respondents’ preferred choice for feedback.

Equipped with several options for support, 95% of students said they felt their instructors were also understanding of personal difficulties, with more than half of that number saying they were even more supportive than expected. That understanding undoubtedly assisted in creating a solid teacher-student relationship that might have otherwise suffered due to a lack of in-person instruction.

What’s Next for the World of Distance Learning?

For many, the fall 2020 semester presented an opportunity to measure the success of distance learning. With a full set of online courses behind them, we asked students to identify how their perceptions of online learning had changed — or was it impossible to replicate the value of in-person learning?

Students notably remarked that despite the challenges surrounding collaboration, they still felt they were able to achieve a feeling of a “classroom community,” with nearly one quarter (24%) even indicating that their online classes provided more of a community feeling than classes they had taken in person.

Interestingly, 20% of students surveyed indicated that at some point in 2020, they had switched schools in order to avoid virtual learning. However, taking overall respondent data into account, we know that all students surveyed did make the transition from in-person to virtual learning during the pandemic, and that a majority ended up having a positive experience.

While the transition to online learning was largely rooted in protecting student and faculty health, our respondents also noted other benefits that resulted from the switch. In addition to feeling more confident contributing in class (35.53%), some students (35.80%) felt that they had even more direct communication with their instructors during online learning. In another overall reflection of online learning’s effectiveness, one in four indicated they learned more in an online format than they would have in an in-person class.

In all, most respondents felt their online learning experience was either just as effective or more effective than their in-person experiences, and 70% would be likely to take another online course as a result of their positive experience in the fall semester.

While many students have transitioned their studies to a hybrid of virtual and in-person instruction, other students will continue to attend classes online, even after the pandemic subsides. And although a large number of our respondents reported that their virtual learning experiences were successful, the long-term effects of this updated approach, including continued social isolation, remain to be fully understood.

As universities continue to update their operations, students will undoubtedly face new challenges in the semesters ahead. Though for students and faculty alike, the lessons learned during this period of uncertainty could provide a path for an improved learning experience, whether classes return to campus or remain online.

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