Covid-19 underlines case for inclusive Higher Education - RSA

Covid-19 underlines case for inclusive Higher Education


  • Picture of Helen Higson FRSA
    Helen Higson FRSA
  • Higher education
  • Digital

Helen Higson FRSA, Liz Moores and Rob Summers argue that higher education establishments need to take a multi-pronged approach to supporting students’ during these challenging times.

Across the world, there is concern that the current pandemic will deepen inequalities, which were already present amongst young people. One enduring way it is expected to do this is via reductions in educational opportunities.Whilst schools have for some time used learner dashboards to monitor their pupils’ progression and achievement, traditionally universities have advocated a more self-motivated and independent approach. Universities are relatively recent adopters of learning analytics techniques, now harnessing digital technology to track student behaviours such as attendance and the use of the virtual learning environment and library. This data – electronically updated daily – provides tutors with an early indication of potential issues, which may impact on student retention and success. It also encourages student engagement via ‘self-monitoring’.

Learning analytics systems have purported to confer various benefits in terms of student retention and narrowing attainment gaps, but much of the research analyses data at the end of the academic year, rather than ‘live data’. This may be fine for ongoing policymaking or predicting failure on a post-hoc basis, but it does not help students who need support during the year. In these challenging times, it is more important than ever to be able to react quickly to provide extra support for those who need it, and to identify students from particularly at-risk groups. 

Recent evidence undertaken by the authors at Aston University has demonstrated that students with higher engagement with their studies in the first three weeks of their first term at university can be a predictor of higher attainment at the end of the year. More importantly, on average, students who increase their engagement by the end of the academic year still do not reach the same levels of attainment as those who have had high engagement at the start of their studies, regardless of whether the engagement activity of the ‘early high engagers’ decreases. 

This understanding affords us various opportunities to reduce attainment gaps and provide a more inclusive educational experience. Whilst we accept that some students may be in a better position than others to engage with their studies early and often, we hypothesise that at least part of the difference may result from a lack of understanding of the process of studying and nature of higher education. In other words, students who do not know what it is they are supposed to be doing; for example students with little family experience of higher education.

It seems reasonable to speculate that the risks of these students falling through the net in this way are even greater if a large proportion of students’ studies is being provided online, rather than face-to-face. Even when online learning opportunities are designed well, there are fewer physical opportunities to make connections, clarify understanding and address personal challenges. This is where the analytics system can come into its own, by encouraging students to track their own behaviour against the behaviour of others in their cohort and to discuss their progress and activities at regular intervals with their personal tutors. We are anticipating that these processes should help to reduce the differences between those students with and without the ‘social capital’ and understanding about requirements in higher education.

Research has shown that this approach is not likely to address all inequalities. For example, research by Nguyen et al and published in2019, showed that in a distance-learning environment, BAME attainment gaps cannot be accounted for by time spent on the virtual learning environment; on average BAME students were spending more time studying to achieve the same level of academic performance. Our (unpublished) data supports this view. Moreover, learning analytics cannot be used on its own but need to be used in conjunction with other interventions and types of support. This might include specific guidance to students on what is expected week by week in each module or incorporating wide-spread peer mentoring opportunities to ensure that students have access to role models like them from previous years. According to Moores, Birdi and Higson, well-designed and supported periods of work experience may also mitigate the BAME attainment gap, as well as reducing gaps between those with higher vs. lower prior attainment.

Overall, we would therefore encourage education establishments to employ a multi-pronged approach to supporting students’ during these challenging times; academically, pastorally and experientially.

Professor Helen Higson FRSA OBE is Provost and Deputy Vice Chancellor at Aston University and her research is into intercultural and employability competences, Professor Liz Moores is Deputy Dean of Aston’s College of Health and Life Sciences and a psychologist, her research evaluates policy in higher education and Rob Summers is a postdoctoral researcher.



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