Ulf-Daniel Ehlers (, Laura Eigbrecht (, Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University Karlsruhe

Almost 20 years ago I had my first presence at an EDEN event and presented research which – at that time as a young researcher – was fascinating me enormously: Exploring the students’ views to find out how learning should be. Now, 20 years down the road it appears that this perspective seems to have gained importance again. The Covid 19 shutdown has challenged students, as well as higher education institutions across Europe, to quickly adapt to a new learning and teaching situation at home, one that is characterized by digitization and distance learning. In this process, new teaching and learning methods have been introduced and tried out. While the teachers’ situation was immediately addressed by support measures, the difficulties faced by students were not initially considered.

In this situation, we wanted to give students a voice: to be heard in Germany, to be able to talk about their situation of studying at home, and to be heard in Europe while staying in shutdown. Two podcast series were born in an instant and started live, immediately two weeks after closing the universities. The goal of our podcast series “Studium im Shutdown” and “NextNormal” has been to engage in direct conversation with students. This is in line with student-centred research and teaching that we are – still today, 20 years after “Quality from a learner’s perspective” – conducting in the NextEducation group.

In “Studium im Shutdown”, we’ve talked to students from Germany about their personal study situation from the very beginning of the shutdown, and we’ve taken a more European and even more future-oriented perspective with “NextNormal”, talking to students from all over Europe about their vision for the future of higher education. How do students actually perceive the current situation and their studies? And above all: Do students feel they have their say at all, and are their problems heard and sufficiently addressed? Where do they need concrete support by higher education institutions? Through this dialogue with students, we have found that the experiences and demands articulated by the students can be used in order to draw conclusions about future-proof university teaching.

In addition to the numerous challenges we all are facing, the pandemic has made clear how much potential lies with students in shaping their learning processes in a self-determined and self-organized way, to reflect on them, and to contribute to shaping the studies of the future – as experts in good higher education teaching and learning. In our podcast interviews, we’ve covered a wide range of subjects concerning students’ recent and future study experiences – featuring preferences and quality requirements from the students’ perspective, as well as their participation opportunities and requirements and their self-organization competences and support requirements. It is also important for us to look at future teaching and learning perspectives: What conclusions should higher education draw for the time after the shutdown in order to offer students a high quality and future-oriented study experience?

The need to consider students’ Individual challenges 

The students’ perspective is of a special concern for us. For example in our research on students’ Future Skills and in our involvement in initiatives and projects such as InclusiPHE, which is currently the largest initiative to  promote future higher education institutions to fully include and engage all students in actively shaping and co-designing teaching and learning processes and decision-making on different levels. For the students we have spoken to so far, participation in the teaching and learning process has been particularly important. They have noted that, especially in the current pandemic situation, far more students want to claim their voice and play an active role in shaping teaching and learning. In doing so, they particularly call for institutions to also be aware of the difficulties students face in this pandemic situation. For example, they must take into account in their teaching design that all students have the (technical) possibilities to be able to attend and complete digital classes and assignments. It must also be considered that students do not necessarily have a suitable environment at home in which they can easily study in a concentrated manner – there are students with children, with roommates, or students without the assumed technical resources. In addition, faculty need to be trained to the point where they can deliver a reasonable course that matches the content of the originally planned courses and requires a similar amount of work. According to students, some lecturers have raised their standards, with the result that the students must manage an enormous additional workload, hardly compatible with private part-time jobs or the like.

Institutions and teachers need to accommodate and take into account all of these challenges, psychological burdens, and personal conflicts by listening to and reflecting on the voices of students. In order to be able to optimize teaching and learning to the extent that it can be successful and effective in this particular current situation and beyond it, one must first and foremost speak with those who are directly affected by it.

A positive example of this can be found in our episode 8, in which we talk to students from Malta. They report that the student council conducted a survey among students about their current study situation and developed recommendations based on the survey, recommendations which were subsequently implemented by the university administration. In this way, the students felt both visible and taken seriously!

Individual challenges require open and supportive institutions

Not only is successful cooperation crucial for students, but transparent communication is also required. Decisions, debates, and problems discussed by institutional management should be communicated directly to students so that they have the opportunity to contribute constructively.

The extent to which participation is important has been demonstrated by the terms that interviewed students used when they reflected on the ideal higher education of the future: terms such as “inclusive,” “fair,” “accessible,” “student-centered” and “equal” were particularly frequent. These are expressions of personal values that students bring with them and want to see realized and fulfilled in their studies.

Challenges on a personal level seem to matter to students even more when studying digitally. More self-regulation and self-organization are required by students, which can become an enormous burden for them under certain circumstances. Some of our interviewees mentioned mental stress related to uncertain future prospects. Mental health is an important issue for students, and it urgently requires general awareness and understanding. Social presence is particularly important at this point. The short and spontaneous get-togethers of students, the simple small chat after a course, have almost completely disappeared. It has become more difficult to spontaneously exchange views on topics and questions, and institutions must work on providing students with assistance and to substitute opportunities as needed. Studying should never be experienced as an individual struggle – institutions must try to restore the sense of community.

Embracing the potential of students as experts for future higher education

In this context, a growing awareness of the quality of teaching and learning seems to go hand in hand with a more distinct demand for it and the request to be more strongly involved in designing it. This goes far beyond the pandemic situation, with stakeholders jointly striving for a better future higher education in which institutions support students in their self-learning and self-organization strategies.

Without exception, students now experience that there are different ways of studying. They autonomously develop their quality requirements when it comes to teaching and learning and perceive these requirements quite consciously. They organize their studies – and their lives – independently and ask for individualized and easily accessible support services. After the pandemic, they will continue to articulate their demands. Students see and demand the potential to be involved in the teaching of the future, and it is imperative that institutions recognize and realize that potential. Higher education can no longer afford not to include students in this important debate.

Inspiration box

Next Education:

Studium im Shutdown:

Next Normal:

Download open access Future Skills – Future Learning, Future Higher Education: