In 2020, many university programs had to shift at least part of their teaching online. This opened up many questions about the impact of online learning and the lack of in-person interaction on students’ ability to learn and socialise and on their mental health. Professor Anna Cox and Professor Yvonne Rogers led a study investigating the the role of digital technology in the academic and personal lives of undergraduate students who started their courses in autumn 2020.
The study combined mixed-methods surveys with focus groups, conducted in November 2020, and involving a total of 38 student participants. The overarching aim was to understand how these students made use of technology to support themselves through starting university, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Each focus group participated in four half-hour discussions, centred around the following themes: (1) use of technology to improve mental wellbeing; (2) impact of social media during Covid-19; (3) impact of technology on students’ self-regulated learning strategies; and (4) challenges to maintaining focus during online lectures and strategies adopted to overcome them.
The participants reported using a number of technologies to support learning, social interaction and mental wellbeing. With lectures moved online, students appreciated being able to learn in their own time and at their own speed, however they also reported challenges around effective scheduling and motivation. Online lectures that involved polls and quizzes worked well at maintaining engagement. However, the use of different platforms and technologies across different modules created confusion and made it hard for students to figure out a timetable.
We also learned that some students shifted academic conversations to social media channels such as Instagram, as that was seen as a more reliable way of reaching people. Creation of breakout rooms during lectures was not always effective at facilitating social interaction, as some students struggled with starting a conversation, let alone making new friends. Messenger and social media groups organised by universities were seen as helpful at facilitating interaction between students, but were not available to everyone.
Moreover, the students reported that listening to music helped manage negative emotions and lift mood, and playing video games could help flatmates get to know each other. Other forms of online leisure, however, such as watching films, were often seen as a way of procrastinating, and associated with guilt, unless used sparingly.