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What are the essentials for effective online learning?

04 May 2021

by Sarah Knight, Head of Learning and Teaching Transformation at Jisc

Over the past year, colleges and training providers have had to rapidly reshape their teaching provision. With the changing requirements as a result of the pandemic, it has never been more crucial to listen to the voices of learners.

Staff need to understand learners’ expectations, to know where and how they are studying, and ensure they have access to devices, wi-fi, and the platforms they need to learn online. A Jisc survey carried out between October and December 2020 with 5,372 learners from ten further education and sixth form colleges in England helps provide much of that information. It also highlights that many learners are struggling with issues that are critical to the success of online learning.

Challenges Challenges include poor wifi connection (36 per cent), mobile data costs (15 per cent) and no safe or private space to study (9 per cent). Many also had problems with accessing online platforms and services.

All these issues are major obstacles for online study and raise concerns about digital poverty.

Online learning: What do students want?

Despite the unpredictable nature of the lockdowns, 63 per cent of learners still expected their learning experience to be at college, although the reality was that only 38 per cent were learning physically on site.

During the second national lockdown from early November to early December 2020, most learners experienced a mixture of on-site and online learning (48 per cent) with just 14 per cent learning solely online. Most were doing their online studying at home.

Half of learners (50 per cent) agreed that they were given the chance to be involved in decisions about online learning. The intense focus on providing a good learning experience throughout the pandemic and the efforts that colleges have made in listening and responding to learner needs and concerns are clearly having an impact.

Positive news

Despite the challenges, overall learners were positive about the quality of online and digital learning on their course: 68 per cent of all respondents rated it as being either “best imaginable”, “excellent” or “good”, and 58 per cent said online learning materials were well designed. On the flipside, less than half (41 per cent) agreed that online learning materials were engaging and motivating.

Two-thirds (66 per cent) of learners had accessed course materials and notes, and substantial numbers had also submitted coursework, taken part in live online lectures/teaching sessions and conducted online research tasks.

Collaborative and engaging activities were less well used, which is a concern since this is an aspect of learning that learners value, and an opportunity to develop skills valued by employers. For example, less than a quarter (23 per cent) had worked on group projects – practice that is routine in many industries.

The lack of feedback is also an issue, with fewer than half of learners (49 per cent) receiving feedback on their work. This is clearly an area for improvement.

Support to work online

Learners were generally positive overall about the support they received for online learning, with 71 per cent rating it as “best imaginable”, “excellent” or “good”. However, the survey identified areas where further support and guidance is required.

Only 54 per cent said they received guidance about the digital skills they needed for their course, while less than half (43 per cent) agreed they received an assessment of their digital skills and training needs.

This kind of support is especially important. Activities to engage learners in reviewing and reflecting on their digital skills can take place prior to starting their course to help them make the adjustment from using technology generally to actively using it to advance their learning. Following a trend in our survey results over recent years, 2020’s learners turn first for support with online learning to their lecturers and tutors (71 per cent). The second most popular port of call was friends and family (36 per cent). The percentage using this option for back-up was higher than in recent years, probably because, if studying off-site, friends and family were a more accessible source of knowledge. Online videos and resources were the third most likely option (27 per cent).

Fewer learners reported turning to peers for help with online learning this year (4 per cent), compared with 2019 (13 per cent), perhaps because there have been limited opportunities to form bonds with fellow learners.


As part of the survey, learners were asked about the most positive and negative aspects of online learning, how online and digital learning could be improved and what their college should do to help them learn effectively online. The responses provide a useful guide for college leaders.

Among the most important elements for consideration were basics such as reliable wi-fi and access to devices, software and digital content to support learning. Learners also wanted more interactive lessons, with quizzes and games, and recorded sessions that they could access at times to suit them.

Training teachers in the effective use of digital tools was also mentioned, along with a suggestion that teachers think carefully about the pace of their delivery, offer shorter sessions and build in regular breaks.

Learners also wanted more opportunities to talk and to ask questions of teachers and peers, and they requested timely feedback.

The way forward

During the pandemic, teaching staff and learning technology teams have worked tirelessly in challenging circumstances to design and deliver a comparable online curriculum, with the introduction of new and innovative ways of communicating, learning and teaching.

The inter-personal aspect of learning has been harder to support, and the wellbeing of many learners has suffered. Having said that, some learners, perhaps those with social anxiety issues, reported having enhanced access to teaching and tutorial staff and find it less daunting to participate in small, online discussions than in large face-to-face lectures.

Now armed with this useful data, now is the time for colleges and training providers to work in partnership with their learners to co-design a world-class digital experience – one in which technology is integrated in a pedagogically sound and inclusive way.