Access Digital and Distributed Learning

What do Ulster students want from their digital experience?

By: Fiona McCloy | Posted on: 29 Aug 2018 | Views: 1256

Ulster took part in the Jisc Student digital experience tracker survey in the academic year 2017/18 (now known as the Digital experience insights service). This is the second consecutive year Ulster has taken part. It is a national survey to gauge students’ expectations and experiences of technology and provides the opportunity to benchmark Ulster with higher education in the UK. The results have been shared with stakeholders at Ulster, with individual student responses being sent to the relevant areas in the University.

Ulster considers itself to have a well-established digital presence. It is over 18 years ago that the first institutional VLE was available at Ulster. The University strives to provide digital leadership on the effective use of technology to enhance education. The Jisc tracker survey provides the opportunity to better understand the student digital experience and listen to the student voice, informing potential areas for improvement.

Personal v institutional learning spaces

The survey looks at students’ personal and institutional use of educational technology. This shows a high percentage of Ulster students use their own devices for learning - much higher than those using institutional devices. 96% use personal laptops and 88% use personal smartphones to support their learning.

They use digital tools and apps for a range of activities in their own learning time, weekly or more. More than one in three students identify a different tools or app that they found really useful for learning, for a range of activities.

Word cloud of top 100 tools/apps

Word cloud of top 100 tools/apps

Ulster’s VLE, Blackboard, is listed first, with YouTube, Google tools, Blackboard App and Notes tools in the top five. A mix of supported (e.g. Blackboard) and non-supported tools (e.g. YouTube and Google) are identified. The interplay between these is interesting - in terms of formal/informal learning, the digital learning space, learning design and support needs. Are there opportunities for informal digital skills to become more formalised in learning design activities, to develop digital fluency for the workplace?

For various activities a wide range of different tools were selected, e.g. a number of note-taking tools. This shows students have preferences over what tools they use to suit their learning needs. This could influence the learning design, by structuring activities that give students choice about what tools/apps they use to achieve a set goal. Traditional digital desktop tools, such as Microsoft Word and Excel, feature relatively low, perhaps indicating students perceive them as just another tool/app in the wide range they have available to them.

64% regularly access Blackboard on a mobile. The Blackboard App is recommended for Ulster students, to ensures a responsive mobile-friendly learning experience when they access Blackboard on a mobile device. The Blackboard app can also provide an effective way to engage and communicate with students, with push notifications for new interactions in their course.

Institutional, course and workplace perspectives

This year’s survey includes a satisfaction rating for institutional and course provision. 85% rate the quality of Ulster’s digital provision (software, hardware and learning environment) as good or above. 74% rate the quality of digital teaching and learning on their course as good or above. 97.6% of students would like the same or more digital technologies to be used on their course.

“Increase the variety of technologies used in learning, break the norms.”

Similar to last year, the survey both locally, and nationally, highlights a gap between the importance students place on digital skills in their chosen career and how much they feel their course prepares them for the digital workplace. This shows the importance of embedding digital skills for the workplace into the curriculum. This aligns with Ulster’s new Integrated Curriculum Design Framework, with a focus on the needs of the 21st century graduate.

What students want

Question 11 asks - what one thing should Ulster DO to improve the student experience of digital teaching and learning? A range of themes emerged. The top three from the open comments are – more training and support for students to increase digital skills; recorded learning content in their course; and improved WiFi reliability.

This indicates a demand from student to improve their digital capabilities. They want awareness of what is available from an institutional perspective, with signposts of where to go for help when they need it - with a preference for short video content. They mainly turn to their fellow students and online information first, when they need help with digital devices or skills.

There is a demand for recorded learning content, so that students can review content in their own time and pace, removing the pressure of taking notes in class and enabling active learning in the classroom, aligned with Ulster’s new Learning and Teaching Strategy. Both last year and this year’s results show an appetite from students for an interactive learning experience.

“Incorporate more interactive apps or videos to learning.”

“Encourage more online work for example online marked tasks such as weekly quizzes.”

“More opportunities to interact during classes”

Class polls/quizzes, online quizzes, Blackboard and Nearpod are the most popular course digital activities that students found really useful. This endorses the promotion and support of the Nearpod app at Ulster to encourage an interactive learning experience. However, 48% have never used a polling device or online quiz to give answers in class and 63% have never used an educational game or simulation for learning. There is potential to build capacity on the use of such tools to create an interactive learning experience.

Word cloud of course digital activities that Ulster students found really useful

Course digital activity Ulster students found really useful

A range of other digital activities are identified as being useful, including Powerpoint, online discussions, video learning content, virtual classroom, Peerwise, CAD and creative design activities such as Photoshop – a variety of responses are shown below.

  • Creating a visual diary that displays progress visually as well as written
  • Creating marketing flyers with Photoshop
  • Creating a course discord server where we upload our solutions to practicals and ask questions
  • Feedback given though voice software by lectures on Blackboard
  • In-lecture polls for constructive feedback on class results
  • Interactive chat forums to discuss issues in lectures
  • Making our own website
  • Making videos to aid learning as a group – this helps me remember information because it is creative, interesting and visual
  • Microsoft online – during group projects, it is very useful as anyone can just edit and basically work as a group online.
  • Online test where you can view what you got wrong immediately
  • The break out rooms in Blackboard really give a sense of the class room in online lectures
  • The poll that you use with your mobile to give anonymous answers in lectures.

Students would like some improvements to Blackboard. They want it simplified and standardised with up-to-date content. A standard module template is available at Ulster, to provide a consistent student experience and meet student expectations.

What students don’t want

Question 12 asks - what one thing should Ulster NOT DO to improve the student experience of digital teaching and learning? The key theme is that student want open access to digital provision and resources. They do not want any limitations, restrictions or removal of access from learning content, WiFi, hardware, software, resources or from using their own devices. They want digital kept simple, so that they aren’t overloaded or overwhelmed; in terms of information, content and resources.


Similar to last year, the benchmarking results are positive and reassuring. We align and are largely similar to the national results.

Ulster students appear to be more positive about digital learning than the national average. Ulster are above the national results in the six Q19 questions - which measure how positive student attitudes are about digital learning. 81% are more independent in their learning, 77% can fit learning into their life more easily, 72% enjoy learning more and 66% understand things better when digital technology is used on their course.

Contact if you would like to find out more about the Ulster results.

Jisc Digital experience insights survey 2018

The Jisc Digital experience insights survey 2018 findings from UK students in further and higher education is now available.

Download the full report (pdf) or at a glance summary (pdf).