Student disengagement with the physical campus
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Covid-19 has brought a lasting and unforeseen consequence for learning practices – the persistent absence of students from campus. Digital transformation of teaching replaced physical co-presence on campus with digital mediation and a change in the micro-routines of learning and teaching. Although welcomed by many, the unintended outcomes include absent students, disengagement, demotivation, poor learning outcomes, poor wellbeing and mental health concerns, stress and anxiety. With the Covid-19 restrictions ending, many academics expected a slow return to pre-pandemic levels of student engagement with the classroom. But were pre-pandemic levels of student engagement in the first place good enough, or has the lack of student engagement been exacerbated by the pandemic? And, should we continue to offer online or hybrid delivery, fully return to on campus face-to-face teaching or a combination of these delivery methods?
Pre-pandemic: Attendance at traditional lectures, which were typically audio recorded so students could play back the material and follow uploaded slides, was generally mixed (approx. 50%); while attendance at non-traditional lectures (e.g., flipped classroom style) and seminars / tutorials / computer labs (not recorded) was generally better. Students valued on-campus interactions with other students for socialising purposes and with staff (even though more limited). But there were some structural impediments to on campus classroom attendance e.g., the timetabling of classes, the need to travel, parking, part-time jobs and so forth (students would not travel if they only had a one-hour class scheduled for the day). Even though online delivery was not formally signposted as such before the pandemic, some individual tutorials and dissertation supervisions were already taking place online, as well as online materials and activities were used to supplement face-to-face classes.
During the pandemic: All classes and assessments went online from the end of March 2020 for the remainder of the academic year 2019/2020 and remained online for 2020/2021. During this time, students were told that universities’ fees will stay the same as they would receive the same value as if they were on campus. Hybrid teaching i.e., on campus lectures live streamed online began for the 2021/2022 academic year; while some universities offered their students options in terms of having seminars entirely on campus or online. Our experience shows a migration from on campus to online seminar groups during the term i.e., students who opt for an on-campus seminar will switch to an online group midway through the semester. Some further relaxation of the Covid-19 restrictions occurred during semester 2 of 2021/2022, including greater class limits, and reduced social distancing for on campus activity. Online delivery benefits from student perspectives include watching lecture content when is convenient for them, ability to fit study around their work/social lives, ability to rewatch materials repeatedly to prep for assessments etc. There is some discussion that these students are often not the ‘top students’, although this may be anecdotal. Student perceptions of on campus delivery focus on the disadvantages of online delivery, like not getting to know your cohort, or not having the opportunity to meet students in other disciplines while at the university. These students recognise the importance of networking, and are (again, anecdotally) often thought of as being the ‘high achievers’. Largely, students prefer on-campus for socialisation, while the “on-demand” culture that we live in has led to students demanding to speak to staff when they want (anytime, anywhere).
'Post'-pandemic: Even though the answers are varied, even within our co-authoring team and depend on the university context, in respect to whether or not we should fully return to on campus face-to-face delivery or use a combination of methods – one point of agreement is that universities have a huge amount of money tied up in physical estates, and the infrastructure that goes with them. At the same time though, we cannot completely return to the pre-pandemic era without taking on board valuable lessons. Hence, moving forward, we need to do a better job of explaining the benefits of attending a physical campus to students and evidence its value. Many of them have grown up with the increasing movement of services to the online world, and many will graduate and get jobs in exactly that environment. There is ample evidence that for many professions, job expectations are increasingly that you will work online, and perhaps attend a physical work location intermittently. In addition, we should not ignore the lessons learned during the pandemic and the benefits of online delivery.
Hence, no matter what approach each business school decides to adopt we have put together a set of tactics that aim to address student disengagement with the physical campus (which could be combined with online and hybrid methods):
- Cluster on campus classes in subject disciplines areas on the same day(s) and align these with subject discipline specific extracurricular activities. Ensure variety of traditional versus non-traditional classes on campus.
- Provide a local space for staff and students to gather together (and align these within subject discipline areas also).
- Afternoon tea or coffee breaks with students and staff in local space – every week.
- Develop formative assessments for “play” and learning (more challenging); and monitor student completion (automated quiz, no extra work for staff).
- Provide students with quality physical infrastructure which they benefit from attending and using (similar to the concept of labs in Chemistry!). In the Finance discipline, for example, this could be a Trading Room with specific resources, or in Entrepreneurship, it could be space for a ‘business incubator’ style setup.
The ideal outcome of these suggestions (combined or not with online and hybrid methods) is to increase student engagement given its positive relationship with improved academic outcomes and significantly higher levels of student satisfaction scores (e.g., based on National Student Survey results). Rankings based on student satisfaction and graduate outcomes have become very influential despite scepticism in terms of their reliability and hence vital to the reputation and performance of a business school (e.g., recruitment of high calibre students, staff retention and recruitment, income and re-investment power, government resources and opportunities).
So far this blog has focused on students and ignored the complexities of staff lives (e.g., living in one area because of caring responsibilities but having to work at a university a long way away because it is the only academic job available) and how this might impact higher education in the future. Online and block timetabling when on campus can also provide opportunities for staff, not only students, that should not be neglected to be taken into account. We also need to consider the skills required and tools needed for excellent on-campus teaching and how these very much differ for online delivery; and what this might mean for us as academics.
The aforementioned only slightly touches upon this wide and important issue and does not intend to act as a blanket solution for all; but rather as a starting point to encourage discussions amongst business school educators to consider what the student university experience looks like, and how it can be enhanced to encourage and increase value of physical co-presence when on campus (while not neglecting the advantages of online and the lessons learned during the pandemic).
Denney, F. (2022) “Working in Universities through Covid-19: an interpretation using the lens of institutional logics”, Academy of Management Proceedings, 2022, (1), pp. 1-39.
Kandiko Howson, C. & Matos, F. (2021) “Student Surveys: Measuring the Relationship between Satisfaction and Engagement”, Education Science, 11 (297), pp.1-12.
McMurtRie, B. (2022) “A ‘Stunning’ Level of Student Disconnection”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-stunning-level-of-student-disconnection
Danae Manika is Associate Head & Professor, Brunel Business School; David McMillan is a Professor at Stirling Management School; Anna Morgan-Thomas is the Director of Research and a Professor at Adam Smith Business School; Bruce Vanstone is Head of School at Bangor Business School. The authors would like to thank Dean & Professor Jane Hendy and Professor Fiona Denney from Brunel Business School for their valuable feedback.