Access Digital and Distributed Learning

Student digital experience at Ulster

By: Fiona McCloy | Posted on: 01 Oct 2017 | Views: 3792

For the first time the voice of 22,000 UK post compulsory education learners has been captured to find out about their digital experience. This was made possible through the Jisc Student digital experience tracker 2017 project. Ulster University was one of 29 UK higher education institutions that took part in this. This blog post highlights some of the key findings from 337 Ulster students, benchmarked against UK higher education. It also considers some possible opportunities to enhance educational practice based on the results.

Systems and access: Digital technology enables flexibility and is used extensively to support learning

Ulster students use on average 1.9 institutional devices and 2.5 personal devices to support their learning. 91% (88% UK HE) are using personal laptops and 89% (84% UK HE) are using personal smartphones. Ulster students use institutional desktop computers and individual personal devices more than the UK average. They have a high level of access to digital services, although a few students requested more reliable wifi (82% access at Ulster, 80% UK HE).

74% of Ulster students (71% UK HE) felt more independent in their learning when digital technology was used on their course.

79% (73% UK HE) felt they could fit learning into their life more easily. 75% of students (67% UK HE) regularly access the VLE on a mobile device. They find apps really useful for learning, including the Blackboard app. With students commenting, “The Blackboard app is brilliant” and “make more people aware of the Blackboard app”. They identified about 80 different apps and tools that they found really useful for learning, which provide a wide range of functionality, as shown in the word cloud below.

These results suggest Ulster students have the services and technologies to embrace digital learning, giving them independence and flexibility in their learning. Identifying 80 different tools/apps, shows they are skilled in how to use technology to support their learning. However we can’t assume that all students, or all staff, are equipped with the digital literacies to embrace this. As one student warned, “don’t expect all lecturers to be tech fluent/savvy. This can also be said for the students”. Another student requested that staff all have the same digital knowledge.

Learning content: Digital technologies are used extensively to improve knowledge and understanding

67% of Ulster students (59% UK HE) understand things better when digital technology is used on their course.

88% of Ulster students (82% UK HE) digitally access lecture notes or recorded lectures weekly or more, and they like the ability to do this.

“Don’t stop uploading seminars or lectures online, as this will prevent students revisiting the topic they had learnt”. Blackboard Learn is the most popular digital tool, which they found really useful for learning. However they value class time and seem fearful of losing it, “Do not decrease any more class time with online modules”. A few also pointed towards wanting a more flipped classroom approach.

Ulster students like video lectures and want content to be relevant, interactive, easy to access and concise, with less reliance on PowerPoint. “Think of alternative ways to present information, rather than a simple slideshow. Create a more interactive way of learning, using tools like Prezi. Try to be more visual and incorporate videos into learning”. They find it useful having access to e-books and e-journals (96% have access, 92% UK HE) and request relevant online reading lists.

96% of Ulster students (96% UK HE) find information online weekly or more, as activity within their course. 70% look for additional digital resources not recommended, weekly or more. Some use the Internet and apps to research topics and watch YouTube videos to improve understanding of a topic.

These results clearly illustrate a preference for interactive learning content, which appeals to a range of learning styles.

At Ulster, multimedia content can be easily added in Blackboard, including video, audio, visual, web links and widget integration (app or tool, e.g. a Twitter feed). The Mashup tool enables YouTube videos, Flickr images (select creative commons only), SlideShare presentations and ShareStream videos to be embedded and viewed within the learning content. Further information about adding content to Blackboard is available at

Instructors can record lectures for students to view, and review, using ShareStream in Blackboard, allowing students to digest content at their own pace. Further information about lecture capture and online streaming at Ulster is available at

Office 365, which is available to all staff and students at Ulster, includes a range of useful tools and apps. The Sway app makes it easy to create animated presentations and digital stories, with access to creative commons images, which can also be added to Blackboard. (Note, the summary presentation for this blog post was created using Sway)

Digital activities: Ulster students find interactive digital technology really useful (online and in class) and want more of it

Ulster students find the use of quizzes and polls in the class and online really useful, allowing them to check progress with instant feedback, “Online quizzes are a great way to learn”.

“I think lecturers should have an online module test each week covering the topic we have just covered to make sure that students understand what they have just learnt. It should be compulsory (i.e. 10% of their overall mark) and would help boost attendance to class, as students will be motivated to pass.”

This aligns with a study by Moorhead and Hazlett (2014), where Ulster students and staff showed a preference for using quizzes for online feedback in Blackboard. Regular online quizzes can be set up alongside learning content at Ulster using Blackboard Tests. This can test the understanding of a topic and provide instant feedback on submission, for both correct and incorrect answers. This allows the student to self-correct and can retake the Test multiple times. The instructor can view the results and focus on any knowledge gaps in a timely manner. Once set up, the Test can be easily repurposed for other cohorts.

The use of interactive polls and quizzes in class are popular with students, especially Nearpod - an interactive teaching app, which enables active learning, even in large class sizes.

Though the results also show that 51% of Ulster students (48% UK HE) have never had the opportunity to use a polling device or online quiz to give answers in class. 60% (58% UK HE) have never used an educational game or simulation for learning, which could also test knowledge and provide feedback.

Ulster students identify Blackboard communication and collaboration tools, such as Discussions, Blogs and the virtual classroom, Collaborate, as useful. These can be added to any content area and used for regular activities to foster a supportive learning community in a safe controlled online environment.

Some Ulster cohorts are finding group chat apps useful - to share information, provide peer support and collaborate on group projects.

“WhatsApp is great for group work communication”.

“The class created a group chat on social media to keep each other in check and up-to-date”. One student commented that tutors shouldn’t leave this to chance and should foster an online community from the start. This could help with transition and retention, encouraging a sense of belonging.

38% (35% UK HE) of Ulster students work online with others weekly or more.

40% (40% UK HE) feel more connected with other learners when digital technology is used on their course. 42% enjoy using the collaborative features of the VLE, with 40% discussing learning informally on social media.

Overall these figures show the potential for students to participate in more online activities; the demand by students for this; and the pedagogic benefits of doing so. As Paul Feldman, Chief Executive of Jisc, highlighted from analysing the national tracker results (2017),

“The use of digital activities within courses is not as prevalent as we might expect. This suggests that the full benefits of technology to support learning are yet to be realised, with technology more commonly used for convenience rather to support more effective pedagogy”.

Assessment and feedback: It is convenient to submit assignments electronically

65% of Ulster students (61% UK HE) think online assessment is delivered and managed well.

86% (80% UK HE) find it more convenient to submit assignments electronically and 73% (70% UK HE) find the University systems help them to avoid plagiarism.

The Ulster Electronic Management of Assessment policy endorses that all assignments are submitted online from academic year 2016/17. These results suggest a positive reaction by the students to this policy.

However only 51% of Ulster students (46% UK HE) make better use of feedback if it is delivered digitally. One student commented, “Feedback on assignments should be improved. I think we should be able to see where exactly we have made a mistake in order to focus on that area and improve it for the next assignment”. In the recent NSS 2017 results, 69% of Ulster students (70% NI) felt that feedback on their work has been timely and 76% (72% NI) felt they had received helpful comments on their work.

These findings suggest students are receiving limited formative feedback online.

There is the opportunity for digital formative feedback to be adopted to enhance educational practice. Online feedback has the advantage that it can be automatic; anonymous; from self, peers and tutor; by audio or video; and students have the ability to re-access it and digest it when it suits them. This could be achieved, for example, by:

  • Feedback from regular online activities, e.g. quiz, game, discussion
  • Smaller draft submission during the semester, with feedback to improve the final summative assignment.
  • Using peer review, to receive formative feedback comments from peers, whilst better understanding the criteria and how to self-improve.

Institutional perspective and learner support

37% (35% UK HE) felt they were given the chance to be involved in decisions about digital services. One student commented, “Talk to the students more about what suits them best”.

Only 38% (35% UK HE) had been told how their personal data was stored and used.

57% (50% UK HE) felt their course prepares them for the digital workplace, even though 84% (82% UK HE) felt that digital skills are important in their chosen career.

With 31% (37% UK HE) creating a formal record of their learning weekly or more.

26% (17% UK HE) of Ulster students have difficulty accessing University information or course content as a result of their disability. 57% of Ulster students (31% UK HE) have had support to use assistive technologies from their University.

These results raise some further questions for higher education institutions. How could students feel more included in digital learning decision-making? How could digital systems be more accessible? How can we empower students to responsibly manage their digital footprint and become professional digital citizens? How can we ensure digital literacies are embedded in the curriculum so that students are equipped for the digital workplace?


Being part of the Jisc Student digital experience tracker 2017 has provided a unique insight into the interplay between Ulster students and learning technologies. It is very useful to be able to benchmark this against UK higher education. Many of the results indicate a mature and well-established digital presence at Ulster, however both locally and nationally the results highlight further opportunities to use digital technology to enhance educational practice.

Hefce National Student Survey results 2017, available at

Moorhead, A & Hazlett, D (2014) Comparative analysis of online methods on Blackboard Learn for student feedback in small and large group teaching, Perspectives on Pedagogy and Practice, Journal of the Centre for Higher Education Practice, Ulster University.

Newman, T & and Beetham, H (2017) Student digital experience tracker 2017: the voice of 22,000 UK learners, Jisc publication. Available at