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Despite Challenges, Fair Proportion of Students Prefer Online Education

Despite Challenges, Fair Proportion of Students Prefer Online Education

© Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

While a good deal of students readily embraced online learning, there were also many of those who felt less comfortable completing their coursework remotely due to technical difficulties. First-year students had the hardest time adapting to the new format, and low-income students also encountered many challenges. These are some of the findings from a large-scale survey conducted jointly by IOE, the HSE Centre for Institutional Research, and the Institute of Distance Education at Tomsk State University.

The survey, conducted jointly by HSE and Tomsk State University, aimed to understand Russian university students’ attitudes towards distance learning. Survey questions were designed to determine the extent to which reality correlated with students’ expectations, what difficulties students encountered in adapting to the new format, and whether they were satisfied with the quality of their online studies and the outcomes.

The survey shows that about a third of the respondents prefer online courses to face-to-face instruction. This means that while many (65%) reported a drop in learning efficacy, there was a significant proportion of students who supported the online format. The authors of the study draw attention to the fact that universities had to adjust their curricula within a few days and move online within a matter of days.

A wide range of students were surveyed: full-time students, part-time students, undergraduates, students pursuing specialist degrees, master’s students, scholarship recipients, and students who pay tuition.

To get an idea of students’ attitudes over time, the researchers conducted the survey in two waves. The first wave was conducted in March—April, immediately after universities transitioned online in accordance with orders of the Ministry of Education and Science, and the second wave was conducted in May—June.

The Ministry supported the initiative of HSE and TSU to conduct a large-scale survey—students from more than 400 universities all over Russia participated in each wave of the survey. During the first wave (conducted between March 24 and April 1), a total of 10,938 students were surveyed, and another 24,428 students took part in the second wave (May 24 to June 1).

The survey was conducted online. A link to the questionnaire was shared widely on VKontakte (via river sampling) and with the help of university administrations.

The authors of the survey admit that one should use caution when directly applying the survey results to the entire student community, since they compared different data sets (that is, survey results of different people). However, they collected the data in similar ways.

Students were asked how satisfied they were with the implementation of online learning, and how prepared they thought their university and instructors were for the transition.

In the first wave of the survey, it was found that those who study computer science and social sciences, as well as students in the humanities and economics, gave comparatively higher scores in these areas than students of other disciplines. Meanwhile, more than 50% of students in engineering, medicine, and the arts were dissatisfied with the transition to online learning. In the second wave of the survey, attitudes amongst medical students improved, but those of students studying creative disciplines worsened. In both waves, master’s students generally gave higher scores than undergraduate students.

As for the question of whether universities did a good job keeping students informed about the current situation and changes in the educational process, positive attitudes amongst students took a downturn between the first and second waves, going from 65% to 55%.

There were seven questions asking about the format of distance learning. It was revealed that classes were mainly conducted as seminars and online lectures via video communication, but that it was also not uncommon for instructors to give only a list of references and tasks for independent work.

Another 15 questions dealt with the difficulties the students faced while studying online. These questions ranged from purely technical (some found the interfaces of their online courses and programs difficult to use) to psychological (for others, the biggest difficulty was loneliness and the feeling of isolation in online learning).

Among the problems noted, internet problems were most cited, followed by a lack of communication with classmates—the share of which increased in the second wave of the survey. The number of students who cited a lack of communication with their instructors also increased. First-year students were shown to have had the most difficult time adapting, as they did not have much experience studying offline before the pandemic. Due to this lack of experience, they reported not having sufficient organizational skills and not being able to concentrate on course material on their own.

The share of students reporting technical problems or poor internet quality significantly increased. In the first wave, 75% of respondents cited difficulties, and in the second wave 86% of respondents reported difficulties. In addition, more and more respondents reported that they found it difficult to study at home or find a suitable place for studying.

The ratio of optimism to pessimism among students is also illustrated by their answers to the question of whether their course grades, in accordance with their expectations, were influenced by the course format. About half thought that their grades were not impacted, 15% thought they would be lower, and 3% expected to receive higher grades. As the study authors explain, when conducting exams remotely, students expected an increase in cheating amongst their peers. Therefore, HSE's decision to implement proctoring appears to have been appropriate.

The survey showed that in May, students became somewhat more critical of the distance learning format compared to March. We can say that there is a fair amount of online fatigue. At the same time, there remains a fairly large share of supporters of the distance format—about a third of students prefer online learning, and this will have to be taken into account in the process of returning to the traditional format of teaching in classrooms. Students of different disciplines experienced the transition to distance learning in different ways. Students in creative disciplines particularly had a hard time. It was also difficult for first-year students and students from low-income families who more often than others do not have adequate access to computers and the internet.