Survey provided valuable insights on distance education

Earlier this spring, a survey was sent out to campus-based students where you were asked to share your experiences during the quick transition to distance studies. The purpose of the survey was to enable us to improve teaching and support for students while conducting distance education. The answers have now been compiled and the result contains both positive and negative experiences but also constructive suggestions of improvement.

On March 17, 2020, the Public Health Agency recommended that all Swedish universities should switch to distance education as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Vice-Chancellor decided straightaway that all education should be conducted remotely as of the next day and that all exams on campus should be cancelled. Some facilities on campus remained open to enable all students to have access to neccessary equipment to conduct distance studies.

“This exceptional situation has required a very quick adaptation in a very short amount of time and with no extra resources. The goal has been to as far as possible continue the teaching at normal pace, but remotely. Of course, it has been stressful for our students and to find out how they experienced the situation and the support we offer, we sent them a survey at the end of April”, says Pro Vice-Chancellor Pernilla Nilsson.

1, 564 responded to the survey

5,040 students received the survey, students who usually conduct a campus-based programme or a freestanding course. In total, the survey contained eleven questions, two background questions and a final free text question.

The questions in the survey were related to the following topics:

  • the University’s ICT tools for distance education
  • contact with teachers
  • contact with the Student Support and other services for students
  • collaboration with fellow students
  • physical study environment in the home
  • the structure of the courses
  • wellbeing (stress, anxiety, etc.)

1,564 students completed the survey, a response rate of 31 percent. More than half of you who answered the survey also provided text answers of how you perceived the current situation. Given the response rate, the results of the survey should be interpreted with some caution as it is possible to question whether the survey results can represent the student group as a whole.

The survey responses contain both praise and criticism but also many constructive suggestions for improvement. Several of you who completed the survey have expressed appreciation that the University and teachers, in the current situation and in a short time have been flexible and found solutions to make the shift to distance education work as well as possible.

The situation is worse for 50 percent of the students

Half of those of your responding feel that your study situation is worse, compared to the time before the shift to distance education. One-third believe that there is no change and 14 percent believe that the studies are better now than before.

The experience of the effects of the University’s quick shift to distance education is very diverse and depends on a variety of circumstances. This includes, among other things, what course you were taking at the time the survey was answered, whether it was a course with a lot of teacher-led teaching or a course with a high degree of self-study etc.

Those of you who are first-year students indicate that the studies work worse now, just over 60 percent. Among students who have come further in their education, fewer than 50 percent indicate that the situation has become worse. Half of the students in their fourth or fifth year do not feel that there has been any change in how the studies work.

“The short period of the shift has led to several challenges, both for staff and students, problems have had to be solved as they have arisen. Also, teachers and students are used to distance education and ICT tools to different degrees, the start-up phase has simply varied from student to student. How we, as individuals, experience the situation and how we adapt to it clearly has an effect”, says Pernilla Nilsson.

The Student Union hopes that the positive experiences learned from this spring, with changed teaching methods, can live on.

”The Student Union has, just as the students in the survey, seen that the teachers have done a fantastic job in this quick shift. Most of the students who have contacted us have appreciated the filmed lectures, where there is an opportunity to watch lectures again. However, the lack of spontaneous dialogues and discussions with teachers and fellow students is significant. We hope there will be more of this the coming autumn”, says Student Union Chair Ida Bard in a comment on the survey.

The technology is good, but not the wellbeing

The University’s technology and ICT tools for distance education work the best, over 70 percent of the students say it works well or very well. The worst is the own wellbeing, where just over half of you feel that it is less good or bad.

The Student Healthcare Centre has also experienced that the shift to distance education has had consequences. A large number of students have contacted the Student Healthcare Centre for support:

”We clearly see that the need is linked to the current situation. It has been a huge change for all of us and it is normal to feel anxious, sad or stressed during a crisis. We want to remind all students who need support to contact us”, says Elisabeth Ylander, nurse at Student Healthcare Centre.

“That is why we must continue to focus on proactive and health-promoting work! We must ensure that the students receive all the information they need, not least in terms of the support and help they can get about how to succeed with remote studies and also support for health-related issues”, emphasises Pernilla Nilsson, and refers to the Student Web where all information is provided to the students.

Several suggestions for improvement

Many of you have submitted suggestions for improvement, for example requests for a more uniform structure regarding communication from teachers and efforts to facilitate collaboration between students.

The survey responses also show that greater clarity is needed regarding what can be expected in distance education and also “codes of conduct”, given the wide variation in the way teaching is conducted remotely.

”We now hope that the University will use the results from the survey so that students who have to continue their distance studies this autumn will receive a qualitative education despite the situation. We assume that the shortcomings that have been highlighted will be resolved until then”, says Ida Bard, and hopes that the Student Healthcare Centre and the Study Support Centre will take a more active role and become visible to the students whose study situation has worsened:

”It is important that the students know what support there is, both regarding their studies and their own wellbeing. It is not okay for students to feel bad because of the situation and that it will affect their studies negatively.”

And the results of the survey are very important for the University and can in some cases lead to quick actions in the short term, while others are valuable lessons in developing distance education and digitalisation in the long term.

“The short time, basically none at all, that we had for shifting to distance education has implicated challenges, but lessons learned can now be a strength for our future development at Halmstad University. Both staff and students have been fantastic!” says Pernilla Nilsson.

Footnote. The results of the survey have been presented to the University management, groups of teachers, students and other staff as well to the programme directors.