Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The invisible students

I've read lots of articles in recent weeks about the return to campus after the pandemic. There's naturally a great feeling of relief from students and staff alike. Many articles focus on how students prefer campus teaching to online. Well of course they do - that's what they signed up for! If you commit to a traditional campus degree you naturally want the whole package even if the use of digital media and online spaces will be an integral part of the programme. They accepted online teaching as an emergency solution but although it worked well, they lost out on all the benefits of being on campus such as the network building, social events, sense of identity and being part of a major institution. No-one suggests that they should switch to completely online. The traditional university experience is a vital stage in so many people's development and a completely life-changing period for many. Most reports indicate that staff and students have realised that online spaces add important elements to the campus experience and expect a greater blend between physical and online spaces in the future. However it's sad that all too often the media and politicians want to use this to create a false polaristaion between on-site and online. 

It also brings up the question of what we mean by the term student. All too often it means an 18-23 year old, full-time campus student. However, an increasingly large student population is conveniently forgotten in media discussions. There are millions of people who sign up for an online course or degree because they simply can't move to a campus or university city. Campus is not relevant for them because they already have their identity and networks firmly established where they live with their families, work and community. This group is growing rapidly in response to the demands for lifelong learning and reskilling in an increasingly unpredictable labour market. They value the learning but have little interest in the university experience. Sadly their voice is seldom heard and no-one really represents their interests. .

The main student organisations have difficulty attracting online students. The online students see the student organisations as representatives of campus study but at the same time the student organisations can't represent the online students because they have so little contact with them. It's a vicious circle. This in turn means that the needs of online students do not reach university management and academic boards. The dominance of young campus students on university websites and brochures reinforces this disconnect.

Universities are very willing to hear the voices of their campus students and they are represented in the highest decision-making bodies. How do we give the online student community a similar voice?

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