University student online learning experiences (SOLE) in COVID-times

Cheryl Brown1, Ashwini Datt2, Dianne Forbes3, Dilani Gedera4, Maggie Hartnett5

1. University of Canterbury; 2. University of Auckland; 3. University of Waikato; 4. Auckland University of Technology; 5. Massey University.

During the first nationwide lockdown in 2020, we undertook a research project to explore the perspectives and experiences of New Zealand university students studying online during the pandemic. The project team worked in collaboration with student associations to invite students’ participation between July and Oct 2020. A survey yielded 952 valid responses from students at all eight New Zealand universities, and was complemented by 20 individual interviews and nine focus groups involving 41 student participants both on and off-shore.

Since then, we have seen increasing research on online learning in the pandemic context including special journal issues on the emergency transitions to online learning. However, student voice and experiences, which we regard as essential to informing good design and facilitation of online learning, is still underrepresented in the emergent literature. How teachers teach online, and how students experience and learn online can be poles apart, necessitating explicit attention to how students have experienced online teaching and learning. In particular, online students engage and interact with their studies in different ways.

Detailed analysis of the data is in process and will be forthcoming. However a report of high level findings is available on our website and provides more details of the study.

As we embark on a new phase of lockdown teaching and learning across the country, there are a few key findings from 2020 which we can reflect on as educators.

Diversity of students’ learning approaches and experiences

We need to be cognisant of the difference in the home lives of our students.  Even though teachers and learners should be used to these rapid shifts to remote learning by now, we need to be mindful that the transition from on-campus to online can be challenging for some students.

In 2020, students mostly missed having their classes face to face (24%) where they had more structure (20%) and an opportunity to connect with their friends (17%).

“Being at home is a home environment, where family activities normally take place, not study per se. I do most of my learning on campus, where it is easier to get in the zone. At home there are too many distractions, I normally only do revision at home”

However, this wasn’t the case for everyone:

“..  to be fair i feel more ‘challenged’ when i have to make the 1hr 20min journey into campus. At home i definatly had more time, more fun and a more productive learning space.”

Students were mostly challenged by the demands of a different routine (74%) for learning online, where they had to balance their time and prioritise family commitments (39%).

“everything was very uncertain and a single email could change the trajectory of your entire stay [study] plan”

“felt like i was studying all the time but didn’t know what to study”

Digital equity: Access and prior experience

Whilst young people are viewed as digitally savvy and always connected, digital equality still proved to be an issue in our context. In addition to lack of access to suitable devices for learning and the internet, knowing how to use technology personally (frequently for social and entertainment purposes) doesn’t equate to knowing how to be an online learner.

“my internet is not stable. It’s rural wireless broadband. So, as you can probably see, the connection does drop in and out. And that actually has impacted my studies as well because I can get maybe four hours of videos for one particular topic … and that actually eats up a lot of my monthly data allowance, which isn’t very much”

Unfamiliarity with online learning created extra work pressure for students

And then like a tiny comment, a tiny post maybe a hundred words might take forever for me to write it, for me to post it; whereas, in class we just have to say it”

Benefits of online learning

Though students in 2020 reported feeling less motivated (65%) and less focused (63%), they became used to online learning and could leverage the good aspects when they had the right support or knew where to get required support. More than half of the students appreciated not having to travel (53%) and having the flexibility to learn at their own pace and place (50%).

 “In other words i realised that this whole time during lockdown i was genuinely focused and studied daily, i knew i had to always be online and even though i would procrastinate here in there i still learnt things, more importantly i became better at learning those things through online based exams.

Useful teacher behaviour – content, communication and facilitation

Social learning, care, and connection are critical elements of learning. Students appreciated the human connection from staff who checked in on them, had coffee chats/drop in sessions, and were flexible about timeframes.

Students indicated that regular updates (66%) and clear communication (63%) were key aspects of either teacher behaviour or teaching approach that helped them learn online.

“it was good to see lecturers to students/lecturers talking about their daily life before online live lecture starts. This gave a sense of ‘interaction’ rather than being talked at in campus lecture where I usually felt a bit of distance from lectures.”

Students also reported the usefulness of video recordings (61%) as part of their learning materials.

“The classes that were most helpful were lecturers who continued to give their lecture content via video and then had catchup session to clarify understanding. The ones that were not so helpful were those that relied on delivering content just by powerpoint or  written content as it didn’t  allow us to get the personal insights they often add in a face to face session which are most helpful.”

However, it is perhaps worth remembering that students in their first year of study may not have similar experiences from last year to draw on and thus support for online learning needs to be continuous.

Students’ wellness and wellbeing

Wellness and wellbeing were particularly foregrounded by the New Zealand Union of Students Associations (NZUSA) and Te Mana Ākonga rapid research conducted to assess the impact of COVID on students’ lives. Our research showed that stress was a significant challenge for over half of the students. Students attributed anxiety and stress to various factors, including feeling loss of control, isolation, and workload pressures, with the latter particularly due to juggling paid work and/or parenting with study.

“Overall, it was quite stressful. My eldest son is a severe asthmatic and my younger son is an essential worker, so he had to go to work every day during all the levels. So there was concern for his well-being and also that he would, you know, there was a chance he could bring Covid home to us, you know, so that was quite stressful and it affected my study. Because of that stress, the worries.”

The degree of stress was related to the individual circumstances of students, in terms of living arrangements, competing demands, and diverse psychological needs.

“It was as though I entered into this zen period. Yeah, I had a bunch of people living here that, that had their own demands. But largely, because no one could go anywhere and there were no pressing deadlines apart from study that was submitted online, there was no hard copy or anything. It was a really calming time”.


The uncertainties of the on-going pandemic crisis and lessons learnt from emergency remote teaching demand that we plan for and accommodate increased flexibility and adaptability in our approach to teaching/learning.  Education that is responsive to both students and current social contexts is key. The pandemic can be a “turning point” presenting us with a unique opportunity to shift our systems and practices. We need to think beyond zoom and video-lectures as the main means of online learning. The value of considered, inclusive learning design cannot be underestimated. We all know learning is so much more than just delivery of content. Equity and diversity need to be at the forefront of our thinking when we transition to blended, flexible or online modes of study. Interaction and co-creation are key aspects of engagement. We need to rethink our ethics of care for digital learning in the “post-pandemic” university. As this preliminary report demonstrates, student experiences are not homogenous.  

For more details and a downloadable version of the findings, see our website.

The research team:
Top: Dr. Dianne Forbes (University of Waikato), Dr. Dilani Gedera (Auckland University of Technology)
Middle: Dr. Maggie Hartnett (Massey University), Ms. Ashwini Datt (University of Auckland)
Bottom: Assoc. Prof. Cheryl Brown (University of Canterbury)

We are experienced online teachers and researchers, with longstanding interest in student experience, and in continual improvement of tertiary pedagogy online to better meet student needs. We share an interest in student engagement and innovative, student-centred pedagogies. Our research programmes are concerned with issues of digital literacy and access. Fundamentally, we regard student voice as an essential contribution. Several of us are parents of younger students at both school and university who have had to rapidly transition to online learning from home during lockdown. Therefore, we feel an affinity with young students as we have consulted with our own teenagers to shape programmes of study that work for them. As parents, we also identify with the daily struggles of mature students juggling family life with online study. One of us is a current doctoral candidate, juggling study with paid work in academia. Our wider team also includes doctoral students Zahra Mohamed (University of Waikato) and Ciara Blanca Alfonso (University of Canterbury) who ably assist and inform our research project.

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