Online learning will never be a substitute for face-to-face

By Andrew Norton

In 2020 higher education student satisfaction with their ‘entire educational experience’ hit its lowest point since Australia’s national survey of current students began in 2011.

But the detailed survey results, which cover many aspects of student life, paint a mixed picture. Despite an unexpected shift to online learning due to COVID-19 restrictions, satisfaction with many aspects of teaching changed little between 2019 and 2020. The lost opportunity for personal contact with other students drove the biggest falls in satisfaction.

The Student Experience Survey (SES) is sent each year to commencing and later year students, who based on subjects taken to date are estimated to be in their final year. All higher education providers, public or private, university or non-university, are now within scope, with 184,000 undergraduates completing a survey in 2020. The SES includes postgraduates, but this post focuses on undergraduates. 

Students who enrolled for on-campus education led the decline in satisfaction. 

Most SES questions refer to specific aspects of student experience, but there is a general ‘overall how would you rate the quality of your entire educational experience this year?’ question. This fell from 78 per cent of respondents rating their educational experience as good or excellent in 2019 to 69 per cent in 2020. It had never previously been below 2019 levels. The SES report produced by the Social Research Centre notes that, as we would expect, students who enrolled for on-campus education led the decline in satisfaction. 

Despite lower overall satisfaction, no specific question probing responses to the work of academic staff declined by more than 5 percentage points – that was the drop in those agreeing that their course was delivered in a way that was ‘well-structured and focused’, to 62 per cent (suggesting that this was already an issue for a third of students). 

Ratings of teacher concern for student learning and feedback on work showed no year-to-year change at all, and other questions on intellectual stimulation, clear explanations of coursework and assessment, and teacher helpfulness and approachability registered only small dips in satisfaction. The quality of online learning materials was rated as good or excellent by 81 per cent of students, four percentage points lower than in 2019 – but a good result as it includes judgment on materials were not going to be online until COVID struck. 

In the eyes of their students teaching staff managed the move from campus-based teaching better than expected given earlier reports of dissatisfaction.  But online study diminished other aspects of the higher education experience. This was especially so for commencing students. The proportion of them reporting working often or very often with other students as part of their study dropped 16 percentage points, to 48 per cent. Frequent interaction with other students outside study was down 15 percentage points to 27 per cent. A sense of belonging to the university declined 12 percentage points to 42 per cent. Self-perceived development of skills to work effectively with others fell 11 percentage points to 52 per cent. 

The published SES reports don’t provide demographic detail for individual question results, but undergraduates aged under 25 years reported larger overall declines in satisfaction than older students. Young people had the most to lose from online education. For many of them university offers a significant social experience as well as a formal education. No matter how good the online educational technology, there is no perfect digital substitute for face-to-face contact. Later year students were less satisfied in the same areas as commencing students, but with lower year-on-year declines. Possibly maintaining friends and connections established before 2020 online was easier than forming new relationships. 

A return to on-campus teaching is the obvious way to lift face-to-face contact between students. That is partially happening, but going back to where we were in early March 2020 will not be easy. Universities won’t remove online versions of courses while the threat of lockdown remains, or while there are still students, especially international students, who cannot get to an Australian campus. And as with workers who are reluctant to return to the office despite most restrictions on doing so being lifted, students may have formed new habits while being forced to study at home. They might miss their friends, but they don’t miss the commute. 

 A university survey conducted earlier this year suggests that COVID accelerated moves to permanently reduce, or even eliminate, teaching via lectures. While there are long-standing pedagogical critiques of lectures, this could take away another reason for students to visit their campus regularly.  

So many big things are happening in higher education at the moment – COVID-driven changes to domestic student behaviour, the loss of international students on campus or entirely, the reduced per student funding of Job-ready Graduates – that it is hard to predict what campus life will look like in two or three years time. 

But the latest Student Experience Survey results show that while hasty transitions to online tuition had surprisingly small negative effects on student ratings of teaching, for some students the lack of face-to-face interaction makes their overall student experience much less satisfying. 

Andrew Norton is Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at the Centre for Social Research and Methods at the Australian National University.  He blogs at andrewnorton.net .au Follow him on Twitter @andrewjnorton 

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

8 thoughts on “Online learning will never be a substitute for face-to-face

  1. Dr. Rosie Thrupp says:

    My comments emanate from my role as a mentor of an international student studying to be a secondary teacher at a Masters level and as a lecturer who has previously lectured in this field.

    By the end of his program, he will have paid top money for no face-to-face contact except for one intensive this year.

    The student concerned is IT literate, quite capable, but the challenges of working through all courses online with no contact with fellow students is impacting the quality of his learning, overwhelmingly.

    I would like to say that these students will enter teaching with a qualification severely negatively impacted compared with those who have gone before with quality face-to-face university courses.

    There are many reasons for this. A major factor is the time it takes for students to navigate online courses and decode requirements.

    Students may claim some satisfaction but in the main, they are unaware of that which is required of them in the career for which they are studying. Consequently, they do not know what they do not know.

  2. A return to on-campus teaching is not best the way to improve student to student contact. Well trained teachers, using the right online techniques, can make for successful, satisfied online students. Most students will still benefit from time on campus, but this is not essential, and we should not exclude students from higher education, especially not those from underrepresented groups, just because they can’t get to campus. Doing so threatens the future of Australian higher education.

  3. Rory McGreal says:

    “No matter how good the online educational technology, there is no perfect digital substitute for face-to-face contact.”
    No matter how good the face-to-face contact , there is no perfect substitute for connecting using online educational technology
    BOTH are TRUE.

    I would suggest that the students who are ‘severely negatively impacted’ are those who have not experienced online learning. The vast majority of jobs today are at least partially online. Many if not most social interactions today are online. It is students with no online learning experience who don’t know what they don’t know. All students have had classroom experience.

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