E-learning in the face of a pandemic through the eyes of students

Thomas J Hiscox


The COVID-19 pandemic continues to present unique challenges for the higher education sector around the world.  The reduction in funding, rapid redevelopment of learning resources to suit online delivery and rapid upskilling of academics to teach using new platforms have all contributed to the stress on Australian academics, but what effect has this change had on our students?

When COVID-19 reached Australia, strict measures were rapidly implemented at a Federal level to suppress the spread of the virus. Strict bans on gatherings of greater than 50 people were imposed, essentially putting an end to any face-to-face class delivery in 2020. The transition from a face-to-face delivery to a completely online delivery was rapid, but like all academics we were presented with two choices: asynchronous delivery (where the learning content is pre-recorded, allowing students to progress at their own pace) or synchronous delivery (where the content is delivered in line with the student progression through the unit).

The scramble to convert face-to-face classes to online

We had been using a flipped classroom format for a few years prior to COVID-19, so we were in a slightly better position than other units, however face-to-face workshops and practical laboratory classes, which relied on students working on problems in small groups, had to be transitioned to online equivalents.  The burden of pre-recording these face-to-face sessions was too great, so we opted for the synchronous delivery, where classes would be delivered live. This decision gave us the benefit of having extra time to redesign content to suit an online delivery, but consequently meant we only had one chance to get it right. 

We quickly transitioned weekly workshops to live-streamed sessions delivered via Zoom. Laboratory classes were conducted live, with a facilitator in the lab completing the various procedures while students watched at home on their devices.  This entirely online mode of teaching was vastly different to what the students were expecting when they enrolled in their degree. We became interested in how the transition to online teaching affected the student experience.  Based on attendance numbers in our online sessions during the first few weeks of delivery, we were aware a significant proportion of the cohort were not engaged. This posed a few key questions. Why did so many students choose not to participate? Did the transition to online learning influence their decision and cause a reduction in motivation?

The student perceptions of online learning

We employed a mixed methods approach involving voluntary student surveys to explore student perceptions of how COVID-19 has influenced their study1.  The study, which is still in progress, consists of two anonymous online surveys.  The first survey (delivered midway through the March semester) identified a number of problems in our delivery, which directed some interventions that were implemented for the start of the July semester, the effects of which will be measured in our follow up survey (the data from which is yet to be analysed).  The surveys consist of a series of both closed and open-ended questions on their perceptions of the first year biology course.

In the first survey we found that 63.3% of respondents chose not to attend the live-streamed workshop, despite that the majority (72.1%) of the respondents identifying the value of these sessions. When questioned on the reasons why they choose not to attend, 31.6% of respondents cited “Lack of motivation” as their primary reason, other reasons included , “Connection issues” (26.5%), “Prefer to watch recordings” (18.4%) and “Clashes with other units” (17.5%). 

We conducted a thematic analysis of the qualitative data collected from the survey. This analysis mirrored similar themes as the quantitative survey. Amongst the qualitative data, 35% of responses aligned with the “Lack of motivation” theme, many of these responses (15.7%) further highlighted themes of anxiety and stress amongst the cohort. In some cases, this stress was associated with a lack of guidance in the degree of depth various topics will be examined at. A student reported:

I honestly just really hope that I’m teaching myself everything that I need to know, I get really anxious and stressed that I’m not performing to the best standard that I can…From, a very stressed and anxious first year.

In other cases, the level of anxiety and stress was attributed to a feeling of isolation, which can be summarised by the student comment below:

“I felt disconnected from other students and teachers. More support and social inclusion would be helpful”

Our conclusions from the initial survey was that isolation could potentially be having a significant impact on the performance of our students. The lack of social interactivity appeared to have broken an important component of the educational process – communication. Some of the problems were at the institutional end; we had underestimated how much we rely on simple face-to-face communication to answer student questions. In the fully online environment, simple questions that could easily be resolved at the conclusion of a classroom session, now had to be postponed and asked via email or by forum post. This does not only include communication between staff and students, but also between the students themselves. However when we surveyed students that did attend the online sessions live, it appeared these sessions may have another valuable benefit. They promote a sense of community.

When we surveyed the students that did attend online workshops live, 66.2% reported as being highly engaged during the session. When questioned “What did you enjoy most about the online workshops when attended live”, 25% of respondents reported that they “Provided a sense of community”, while 24% stated that the workshops “Were more engaging when presented live”; with the ability to ask questions in real-time was also highly reported at 28% (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Factors that students enjoyed while attending online live workshops (n=372).

The outlook for 2021

At the time of writing this post, Melbourne (the capital city of Victoria) is still under lockdown.  University campuses across metropolitan Melbourne remain closed for all students, except those that must satisfy key qualification requirements.  There are strong indications that strict social distancing policies will remain into 2021 across Australia. What does that mean for the university campus, where hundreds of students move in and out of a single lecture theatre or teaching laboratories at the conclusion of the session? The solution could be running more sessions, with classes running late into the night. Or is the writing on the wall for the end of face-to-face classes?  I believe online education will remain the primary offering of many Australian universities, potentially only allowing students to attend an on-campus class two or three times a semester. If this were to happen, serious consideration needs to be made into fostering a community spirit and engagement amongst students, for both their mental wellbeing, but also to maximise their performance and learning.

1 Our research was conducted as approved by the Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee (MUHREC) as per project 2020-25523-49505.


Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash

Dr Thomas Hiscox is an education-focussed lecturer within the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University, where he teaches in units across first, second and third years.  Tom is also the coordinator of the first year biology program, which has an enrollment of  approximately 1600 students annually.  His research is focused on the development and recognition of key employability skills by students during their undergraduate degrees.

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