Your advanced warning – the possible crisis in student experience

I’ve discussed before the academic digital divide – here and here. I want to expand on how it could influence student experience across the sector.

A chance juxtaposition of tweets

During lock-down, students were broadly OK with how UK Universities managed a pivot to remote instruction. However even then I talked to people across the sector and came upon examples of students being unhappy because their tutor was on a unreliable connection that might cut out or make communication difficult.

Come September and a blended experience, the expectations of students and the government will be much much higher. I think that the student experience (and maybe NSS) across the sector is going to be highly variable for a few reasons that we have not seen before and will have to think carefully how we manage.

The first is that the student experience will be influenced by the postcode lottery of an academic’s broadband connection. As a sector we have promised we can deliver a excellent experience underpinned by home broadband connections with no service level agreements and people using ISP provided routers (which are generally ****). That Broadband promise doesn’t look so bad now, no?

My advice to leaders across the sector is make sure you have a clear idea of how this might impact provision and start dealing with it now. Some have done this by getting staff to pre-record lectures but there are challenges in this approach I’ll pick up in a later post.

The second reason is that from an infrastructure point of view, we are going to have a small but disproportionate group of people delivering above the benchmark. You might think – “huh is excellence not what we want?”

Here is the problem, when we had fixed physical infrastructure, although there there was variability in delivery and performance – a classroom I delivered in was a classroom you delivered in. Therefore although students might complain about the physical infrastructure it was not really directed at the individual academic because they had no control over this.

The future is different – We no longer start from a position of shared infrastructure for delivery.

Furthermore beyond their pedagogical knowledge, the technical ability of individual academics might have a disproportionate impact. I’m going to take myself as an example – There are many many academics who are as good or better as teachers. However when we ask “do they have the same level of technical ability?” the pool gets smaller. Then we ask – “and what infrastructure do they have to hand at home?” the pool gets smaller again.

If we concentrate on infrastructure for a moment – my broadband connection puts me in the top 3% of the population – I have 1000 meg down and 110 up – this means that my wife and I can both teach at the same time with absolutely no issue (I also have high performance routers). I am capable from a production values perspective of creating high quality material in a short period of time and have the bandwidth/hardware to do pretty much anything.

I have access to an office with a full size powerful desktop and have built a broadcast studio over the summer as I have improved my craft. I had the technical skills to build upon and the kit to do it with.

Yo Dawg, I know you like monitors on your monitor.

At every University there will be pockets of people like me – who have pedagogical knowledge, high levels of technical skills and above normal infrastructure.

The problem is not that these people create a good experience for the students it is that they have both the technical knowledge and the infrastructure to create an experience that is so far over the baseline to cause unhappiness with provision that meets it. Now to an extent this has always happened but within the UK system we have never had these compounding factors of infrastructure and technical knowledge being so much a part of the mix at this scale.

Managing this while not damping down innovation is going to be a challenge…

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