Defining a digital future for teaching, learning and assessment: What do our students want?

Richard Walker and Nathan Page

This was the title for a workshop which we delivered at the Association of Learning Technology’s Online Summit, on August 27th 2020, looking at digital teaching, learning and assessment requirements over a ten-year horizon. The session was informed by the research that we have been conducting with current York students on their digital learning experiences, as well as their perceptions of the services and support that we should be providing for future cohorts. The aim of the session was to share perspectives on what a digital future might look like across UK higher education institutions by 2030, and to tease out some of the common challenges facing us all in developing these services for students.

We used a flipped approach to the session, providing a summary of our research project in advance as a short video. This meant that we could swiftly move into an interactive discussion with participants, drawing upon themes presented in the video. In this blog post we will briefly summarise the research and its findings, highlight some key points from the discussion and present the implications for digital services development.

Our Research and its Findings

Our research pre-dates the current Covid-19 context – and was one element of a wider institutional exercise to explore future digital requirements for teaching, learning and assessment with the aim of using the collective findings to shape a ten-year strategic plan for technology and digital services. Working in partnership with the University of York Students’ Union, we organised focus groups with a range of stakeholder groups to try to uncover any perceived gaps in existing digital services (related to teaching, learning and assessments) and perceived requirements for the future. Overall we had 50 participants, a combination of undergraduate and graduate students, studying fully online and on-campus, who were interviewed over the autumn and spring terms 2019-20.

Of course the digital teaching landscape has now changed quite significantly since our discussions with students; the impact of Covid-19 accelerated the adoption of new systems and services across the HE sector (Marginson, 2020). This has only served to intensify the sector-wide focus on digital provision, drawing greater attention to the way that online delivery can support different modalities of learning, pedagogic design and engagement patterns between staff and students (Rapanta et al, 2020; Walker, 2020) – underscoring the importance of this scoping work in mapping out future digital requirements.

We recognised though that the numbers of students that we interviewed were small -representing a snapshot of opinion across our student body – and that we needed to benchmark findings against published reports and other sector-based resources. Consequently, after completing the focus groups, we analysed the data for emergent themes and connected these developments in the sector and literature (e.g. Barnett (2014) on the key emergent theme of ‘flexibility’ and JISC (2019) on digital experiences in HE. The main themes that we found are shown in Figure 1 below.

Current challenges in digital provision relate to inconsistencies in system processes and gaps in service provision and service delivery.
Future requirements for digital provision include: integrated digital infrastructure; flexible delivery and modes of engagement; student choice over learning methods; rethinking community; and lifelong learning entitlements.

Figure 1: Themes which emerged from our focus group data, with 2 current challenges on the left and 5 future requirements on the right

If you are interested in learning more about these themes (and to see samples of the focus group data relating to each), please see our short video presentation.

Themes and Points of Discussion in the Session

For the purposes of facilitating discussion in our online workshop, we reduced the seven themes listed above into a smaller set of four overarching themes for digital services requirements (they are presented here, along with the associated questions that we used to stimulate discussion):

  1. Flexibility

What does a flexible student experience really look like for higher education institutions? What are the implications for the future design of digital learning, teaching and assessment services?

  1. Personalisation

Personalisation is frequently referenced as a desirable attribute to institutional digital services, as part of learner-centred design, but what does this mean for HE institutions in terms of digital service design and delivery?  What steps should we be taking to realise this goal?

  1. Networking and community

How should HE institutions develop digital services to enhance student networking and community building?

  1. Lifelong learning

Do we need a radical rethink of the relationship between HE institutions and learners and how this might extend beyond the formal study programme? How can digital services enhance opportunities for lifelong learning?

Participants responded to these themes either on Twitter or via the chat function in our session. Picking up on the theme of flexibility, participants debated whether ‘attendance’ should still be seen as equivalent to ‘engagement’ as it traditionally has done, and also whether students participating in synchronous online sessions should be compelled to use their webcams. We would suggest that the answer is no to both points – the first one being far more complex than that, and a range of privacy concerns meaning that students should have choice/flexibility on the second point. On this ‘cameras off’ issue, there were some interesting points raised about how to support staff where they find it difficult to present to a ‘blank screen’. There were also interesting comments about international students and flexibility –  e.g. respecting their time zones. 

On lifelong learning, one participant referred to a ‘moral obligation’ to ensure that students can access programme content in the long term, due to survey results indicating that some graduates still use them 20 years later on. 

On networking and community, the point was raised that the more flexibility and personalisation is introduced, there is the potential for greater inconsistencies between individual learner experiences, which may erode ties within a cohort. Does that mean that a fine balance is needed to avoid this, or that somehow the areas of consistency between learners would need to be emphasised in order to maintain a coherent experience and community?

These discussions were interesting and served to validate our perception that our themes are important for current approaches to digital services for teaching, learning and assessment, although there are no easy answers to the questions that were raised by participants.

Points to take forward from our research and the session

Running this session at ALT’s Summer Summit was a useful experience as it enabled us to receive feedback on our findings from participants from the wider sector, getting their thoughts and input on the themes that we had found. This helps our understanding and plans to take these findings forwards to inform our approach to digital services and supporting work around them.

There are a number of practical steps that we should be considering, focusing on:

(i) Infrastructure and systems integration

– providing an interconnected set of services

– joining up virtual and physical learning spaces to provide a cohesive and integrated learning environment for personal study, teaching and assessment activities.

(ii) Rethinking student engagement

re-envisioning student engagement and ‘presence’ and what this will mean in the future when flexible learning modes are available to all students. Linked to this is hybrid teaching and learning opportunities, which value both ‘physically present’ and remote learners, in this way supporting greater learner flexibility.

(iii) Digital upskilling for staff and students

Exploiting the emerging opportunities that new learning systems and platforms are providing around intelligent tutoring, personalised learning, community building etc. – ensuring that staff and students can maximise the value of these systems in support of learning and teaching activities.


Barnett, R. (2014). Conditions of flexibility: securing a more responsive higher education system. York: The Higher Education Academy.

Jisc (2019)  Digital experience insights survey 2019: findings from students in UK higher education (HE)’19_AtAGlance_HE_Version_Web_HR.pdf

Marginson, S. (2020). Global HE as we know it has forever changed. Times Higher Education (26 March 2020).

Rapanta, C., Botturi, L., Goodyear, P. et al. (2020). Online University Teaching During and After the Covid-19 Crisis: Refocusing Teacher Presence and Learning Activity. Postdigit Sci Educ. 

Walker, R. (2020). Rethinking teaching practice: instructional (re)design for the next academic year. Jisc Connect More 2020 Online, 16-18 June.

2 responses to “Defining a digital future for teaching, learning and assessment: What do our students want?

  1. Pingback: E-Learning Newsletter – October 2020 Edition | Programme Design and Learning Technology Team·

  2. Pingback: E-Learning Newsletter – November 2020 Edition | Programme Design and Learning Technology Team·

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