Pros and Cons of Digital Learning

Findings suggest students miss real-world interactions after all.

Posted Sep 28, 2020

Recent articles in the media have reported that a range of problems are besetting students who are studying during the pandemic and facing the cancellation of the majority of face-to-face teaching. These reported issues range from students being "locked down" in university halls,1 suggestions that fees should be reduced or scrapped due to the changes in the university experience,2 and concerns that studies will suffer due to the lack of traditional teaching provision.3

Whatever the truth of such claims, and some have been wildly exaggerated, there is growing evidence that the actual situation is far from simple. In fact, several things seem to be emerging from the developing literature on this topic. These findings show that pandemic-generated changes to teaching have not impacted everybody equally and that some groups actually fare better under these conditions. Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, despite their relatively high use of social media, young adults seem to prefer real — not digital — social contact after all.

A number of surveys have been published concerning the perceptions of students about how responses to the pandemic, made by universities and colleges, have impacted their studies.4-7 Of course, student perception is one thing, and the actual impact on their learning and abilities is quite another. However, it is far too early for us to have any substantial data on the latter aspect, so we will have to be content with the study of student perceptions, at least for the time being. Luckily, the surveys on this topic are numerous, and all reveal fairly much the same thing as one another.

One such, quite representative, study4 solicited the views of a randomly chosen sample of just over 1,000 students at colleges in North America. These students were receiving teaching from staff who were physically present with them before the pandemic and then moved to online teaching to complete their course.

The participants reported that their overall satisfaction with their course had dropped from just under 90% before the pandemic, to just under 60% after the pandemic had started. Of course, it is difficult to know whether this drop in overall satisfaction really reflects a worsening perception of their received teaching, or reflects their overall perceptions regarding the changes occurring in their lives. 

When asked about specific aspects of their college experience, there were some areas of teaching that the students said had improved after the move online. Around two-thirds of the respondents said they now better understood what was expected of them on their course, than with in-person teaching. The structure of the materials seems to have improved in an online context, in the view of the students.

The area where students felt their work had been most badly affected, and, as this mirrored their overall perception, we can only assume that this area weighted heavily in their decision making, was the lack of real social contact.

In this study of students’ perceptions,4 65% said that their opportunities to collaborate had worsened after the move online. In fact, this was the aspect that brought the worst ratings from the students. This finding was mirrored by the results from a survey of European university students, which found that: “Students consider distance learning to be interesting, modern, adequate, and convenient, but not able to replace their experience of social interaction with fellow students and teachers.”5 

It appears that, despite their previous high levels of online usage, students, when faced with an almost entirely digital world, hanker for traditional social contact. This contact should not only be thought of as purely for collaborative learning,4 or for social meetings, although there is some of this,6 but also reflects the impact of the structure of the social world on students’ motivation. The lack of real social structure undermined study motivation for some students.4

However, we should recognise that, while many students are feeling negative impacts of a lack of real social contact in their learning,4 this is not a universal phenomenon. In fact, some groups of students feel that lockdown has benefitted their ability to study, possibly due to improvements in their mental health.6

In a survey of around 800 students, their self-reported mental health in May 2020, was compared to their self-reported mental health in May 2019. The results suggested that, while many students reported decreases in wellbeing, one subgroup — those with pre-existing mental health problems — reported an improvement in their mental health over the period of the pandemic. These students reported reduced levels of sadness and depression, as well as lower stress and anxiety, than they had a year previously. Although this is confounded by the passage of time — and mental distress can dissipate over time, anyway.

Beyond the "average student" view, there are data suggesting the negative impact of online study is disproportionately felt by students who are subject to worse socio-economic situations. While, overall, 56% of students say that their home situation "never" or "rarely" impacts their ability to study during the pandemic measures, and only 16% said that it did "often" or "very often," this differs by income.4 

When the perceptions of lower-income families are compared with those of higher-income families, 20% of the former note that their home situation is a problematic factor (most commonly citing connectivity problems), compared with only 12% of students from the higher-income families. Similar issues are also noted across different countries, with one study of Pakistani students, studying in their own country, suggesting that most thought online learning could not benefit "economically under-developed" countries, as a large majority of students in these countries are unable to access the internet reliably — due to either technical or financial reasons.7

In summary, what we do know about the impact of digital learning on students’ perceptions of their studies, during the pandemic, is that it is not a homogenous picture. Some aspects of teaching — its structure, for example — seem better to the students. Indeed, some students feel better when removed from the typical classroom. The aspects that are negatively rated appear to be connected with the impact of a loss of social contact on study motivation and wellbeing (although not for all). It suggests that many students may not be as tied to their social media as they thought they were, and if the organisation of online material could be brought into the in-person classroom (when safe to do so, and who knows how long that will be), this may well be a "gain" from the current situation.


1.      The Mirror (4.9.2020).  UK universities may have 'national lockdown' to stop students infecting families.

2.      The Telegraph (27.9.2020).  Senior Tories call for tuition refunds for university students forced to lock down.

3.      The Law Society Gazette (22.9.2020).  BPP denies student claims it 'degraded teaching' in lockdown.

4.      Means, B., & Neisler, J. (2020).  Suddenly online: a national survey of undergraduates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital Promise.

5.      Kedraka, K., & Kaltsidis, C. (2020).  Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on university pedagogy: Students’ experiences and considerations. European Journal of Education Studies, 7(8).

6.      Chloe A. Hamza et al. (2020).  When social isolation is nothing new: A longitudinal study psychological distress during COVID-19 among university students with and without preexisting mental health concerns., Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne. DOI: 10.1037/cap0000255

7.      Adnan, M., & Anwar, K. (2020).  Online learning amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: Students' Perspectives. Online Submission, 2(1), 45-51.