Students, Faculty Differ in Expectations for Digital Learning

Differences between student and institutional stakeholder preferences are a barrier to realizing the full benefits of digital learning in higher education.

Post-pandemic, it is difficult to imagine higher education without digital learning. The technology enhances communication and personalized learning in all modalities: online, hybrid, blended, and face to face. Tyton Partners conducted large-scale surveys during the spring and gathered insights from 2,048 students, 1,748 instructors, and 306 administrators as part of the longest running study monitoring digital learning in higher education. The report highlights differences in perception between students and faculty and makes specific recommendations to support better outcomes.

Students reported they face unique challenges and that their digital learning experiences and preferences are different from the perceptions of institutional stakeholders. Instructors also face challenges in implementing digital learning in their classrooms.

Key takeaways

  • Many students lack access to stable internet, devices, and applications, even though administrators prioritize access. Although this problem is present across all institutional sectors, it is most acute for community college students and students of color.
    • Recommendation: Instructors and product developers should work under the assumption that students are under-connected, using multiple devices and browsers, and need to download content to work offline.
  • There is a misalignment of preferences between students and faculty. Students strongly prefer hybrid and digital learning options and instructors prefer face-to-face instruction. Students prefer digital materials and faculty prefer print.
    • Recommendation: Institutions should incorporate student demand for hybrid courses and digital materials as part of their digital learning strategy to support the student experience for today’s learners.
  • Students prefer digital course materials availability on the first day of class at reduced pricing. Faculty use more free materials than administrators are aware of as they’re aware of the affordability issues many students have.
    • Recommendation: Institutions should prioritize non-traditional access models, such as Inclusive and Equitable Access, while evaluating choice limitations for instructors and cost savings for students.
  • Students who don’t have a community to support them, such as first-year or fully online students, are more likely to report using collaboration tools and study aids.
    • Recommendation: Instructors should make these types of resources available to students and encourage their use as there is widely accepted research linking a sense of belonging and course outcomes.

Supporting faculty for digital learning

  • Instructors have a wide range of options for choosing effective digital materials. One quarter of faculty use a combination of courseware, e-text, and open education resources (OER). Instructors also supplement with digital tools for assessment, proctoring, student collaboration, and other class functions.
    • Recommendation: Digital core materials developers should consider the range of faculty use, including managing their workload and inclusive content as they design digital tools as this drives the adoption of courseware and OER.
  • Faculty and administrators lag students in the use of generative AI, so they’re not in a position to establish effective policies for the use of AI.
    • Recommendation: AI is here to stay. Faculty and administrators must use AI tools to develop effective and informed policies about AI and to integrate it into teaching and learning.
  • Good teaching matters. Students who report instructors who use evidence-based teaching practices, also report more positive outcomes, such as feeling like they belong and confidence that they will pass the course. Instructors who report they work at institutions that prioritize teaching and learning are more likely to engage in these practices and improve student outcomes.
    • Recommendation: Institutions should ensure effective teaching and experimentation are supported by assessing their policies and professional learning opportunities.