Student Engagement in the Digital Era

Last week, I had the opportunity to join colleagues in a panel event as part of Jisc’s Student Experience Experts Group Meeting in Birmingham.  

We discussed blended learning models in workshops and heard from leaders pioneering the future of digital education, with insightful presentations on research in this area.  

During a panel discussion, I shared insights on post-pandemic challenges to student engagement. Reflecting on my postgraduate experience the year after lockdown, I thought about the evolving role of digital technologies in shaping our understanding of an 'engaged' learner. I was able to draw evidence from my ongoing research for the Higher Education Commission that focuses on the shift towards ‘mixed modality’ delivery of education (i.e. blended learning). We have found significant evidence that shows that conscious integration of digital tools in learning experiences empowers students to personalise their education journey.  

Nevertheless, challenges such as the cost-of-living crisis, wage issues, and the need for curriculum reform persist. The rise of digital learning tools like Generative AI that autocomplete assessments or the prevalence of discarding face to face interactions for virtual learning environments pose a significant risk of disengagement.  

Despite funding structures persisting as a barrier to solving these issues, we learned during party conference season that large scale funding changes were not to be expected for the sector regardless of who forms the next government. If that’s the case, perhaps we should be looking at supporting the delivery of responsive and flexible education that increases learner autonomy.  

On the other hand, I want to emphasise that self-directed learning does not and will not replace the role of an educator in the classroom. Educators play a vital role in guiding understanding and fostering engagement: they are essential in creating a new generation of academics and advancing the field. We must remember that despite this push for autonomous and self-directed learning, educators still form the core of the learning process.  

To ensure students’ active participation, we must prioritise educators' capacity for meaningful engagement. This seemingly straightforward goal is hindered by numerous barriers; for example, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) heavily emphasises research output, impacting career progression – and this may come as a cost of time spent on pedagogical deliberation or curriculum design. It's imperative for the sector to mobilise and drive reform to overcome these obstacles, while remembering that educators must be at the heart of these efforts.  

People can be trained to do lots of things without understanding - like driving a vehicle without knowing how the motor works. A university's aim should be to achieve something more – and therefore educators are the key to increasing student engagement.