When a student goes to university the most common assumption is that they leave home and it is their right of passage. They choose which university has the course they want to do, or they choose the university they think will give them their best chance of entering into their chosen career. They have worked hard to get the right qualifications and taken part in all the extra-curricular activities they have been advised to engage in to improve their personal statements and increase their chances of getting a place at their chosen university. And then off they go! They leave home for the start of the next chapter of their lives, into the higher education system and they come out the other end with a great degree and improved life chances. This is what we would all like to think happens, but of course, the path does not run as smoothly for all or the vast majority of students entering higher education. Only a small minority can afford to move away and have no worries about their finances, their resources and support and many students find that this is not for them and drop out.
For many students, especially in London where 58% of students are commuters, commuting from their homes is the most realistic and practical option. I have used the term ‘commuter students’ to talk about these students but it has become a confusing message that I am not sure students who are not moving away identify with. I saw on a Reddit post when someone had asked what it was like to be a commuter student at a London University and they replied “In London, everyone is a commuter”.
That comment got me thinking about why we are bothered about how they get to university and where they live? Why is it a matter of concern about the nature of their accommodation and what impact does that have on their experience? Actually, it has alot more to do with why they have made that choice and if they actually had any other options. If they have had no other option if they want to attend university, they may just have to make that work. As I have written before, it is not their location but it is a complex set of individual factors that weigh down their experience as they essentially work around the institutions they have access to. The concern is that students who attend the nearest university (presumably nearest, but not always the case) and so travel to and from it but remain living in their family homes are more likely to not have the support they need, enough of the resources that they need to make their lives easier or build the networks that sustain their learning. To that end, they often do not complete their studies and they end up as a statistic (with debt and no degree).
That on its own is a concern and here is where the student digital divide also comes into play. If the student has had no choice but to attend a local/commutable distanced university in order to fulfill their aspiration to have a campus based university education then they have to have online access, which is impacted by their devices and their mobility in terms of being near to reliable wifi or having the data to spare. For some students that is not a problem, but for those who are ‘making things work’ it could prove to another level of stress, yet another issue on top of everything else that means that they will have to give up.
What is their online or digital access like? This is all part of connected learning is often overlooked but it is a lifeline for students who have no choice but leave for home when others are independently learning on campus. The many hours a week that students are working and living together with other students does not happen for a student who needs to live and work away from other students in their home location. They may be preoccupied with their other roles as parents/carers/workers and have to manage as best they can. One way that the internet has revolutionised how ‘accessible’ (and not in the ‘Accessibility‘ sense) universities are is through the digital access institutions provide for these and other students. Every university has an access point via a portal, virtual learning environment or similar which enables the students to access remotely, resources, communicate, find information on their programme or even ask a question. They can look up information or download resources. They can access the library and other learning resources and download software at their leisure. But this access is not equal and very much depends on the relevant resources, the students network connection, devices, as well as the time and experience (skills/knowledge) of the user.
We all know that change in a university does not happen quickly and the ‘tanker takes a long time to turn around’ (quote from an academic to me about using technology in universities) but it does happen (it might take a Pandemic but it can happen) and there is a lot we can do about the level of access, resources and reliability of student access to the virtual world of academia. It should not be left to the student to try and work around the system, especially as they may not have any idea about the way things are done and/or be confused by the language of higher education. It would be good to know if the provision for students is suitable and how the institutions know if what they provide is enabling students in the ways that they, presumably think it does. How proactive are universities in monitoring outcomes of students and evaluating impact of the provision against digital access opportunities for a range of students? If someone has better access through personal resources are they more likely to be successful? Is that fair? If you gain entry on your ability but you are not at the same level of income/access to digital resources and support, should the institution step in? Access to online information and resources is essential to be able to study for your qualification. If you don’t have offline access whilst travelling is that the responsibility of the institution or should that be factored into their decision to attend that institution? (which could mean they cannot attend). Do students know what level of support, access and digital skill requirements are in place before they apply?
If you are an ‘at home’ UK undergraduate student and would like to tell me about your digital experience, please participate in my research.