Funded Projects 2020-2021

Student-Staff Co-Creation of Virtual Environments for Simulated Field Trips

Dr David Trudgeon –  University of Exeter  


The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly limited prospects for students to partake in physical site visits and field trips that have previously been integral to many Higher Education courses. This has highlighted pre-existing areas of inequality in the ability to benefit from site visits in person and afforded the opportunity to develop immersive virtual environments as a viable alternative. Such resources promise to provide long-term value beyond Covid-19, enhancing equality and inclusivity by ensuring that those unable to participate in physical field trips can benefit from the experience. 

This project aims to investigate and assess a collaborative approach between staff and students in developing virtual field trip environments. An interactive map of renewable energy installations across Devon and Cornwall including free roaming three-dimensional environments for selected sites is to be used as an example, but the approach is expected to be of merit in other disciplines and subject areas. Students will be encouraged to research renewable energy installations close to their location and visit sites individually or in Covid-secure groups, providing videos, images, interviews with site operators and other resources for incorporation into the virtual environment.

Through student collaboration and consultation, guidelines and best practices for the development of similar tools are to be identified and communicated. The final product will be made available to the wider community as an educational tool through MOOC’s or public domain websites, with the aim of engaging external partners including Devon and Cornwall Councils, local primary, secondary and further education institutions and renewable energy companies.



Field trips and site visits are generally considered to be an integral component of undergraduate education in many disciplines and are often reported to be one of the most engaging and effective learning platforms, particularly in the development of essential practical skills [1]. The prevention or limitation of opportunities for physical site visits by the Covid-19 pandemic has compounded the necessity of providing alternative methods of delivering the field trip experience to students, and has also highlighted pre-existing inequalities in the ability to benefit from this. It is essential that the learning experiences previously achieved through traditional fieldwork be afforded to all in an equitable and inclusive manner.

The value of digital resources and virtual environments as supplementary or introductory tools to support fieldwork has been studied [2], and the successful use of such tools as viable alternatives to in person field trips has been reported [3,4]. One of the main advantages of virtual fieldwork is that it permits equal access to all, regardless of geographical restrictions (e.g. for those studying remotely) or physical constraints (e.g. visiting inaccessible locations or for those with limited physical capacity). Thus, the development of effective alternatives to traditional fieldwork has long-term benefits beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, by ensuring equitable accessibility to learning opportunities.

This project aims to develop and assess the efficacy and viability of virtual field trip experiences, using renewable energy installations across Devon and Cornwall as an example. While the majority of previous reports employ a ‘unidirectional’ method for the development of such resources [2–4] (i.e., development by staff and educators for subsequent consumption by students), this project proposes a student-staff co-creational or ‘bidirectional’ approach, engaging students as partners to undertake independent research and, where possible, site visits. Resources and information gathered by students is then to be incorporated into the virtual field trip experience alongside inputs from staff. In this way, the development of autonomous research skills will be facilitated, and all stakeholders will be able to benefit from the experiences and knowledge of others. It is expected that the resultant virtual environment will also be of value to external collaborators as an educational tool, such as local primary, secondary and further education institutions and renewable energy companies.

The efficacy of the virtual environments and resources developed as part of the project is to be assessed through student feedback and focus group sessions. Advantages and disadvantages will be identified and discussed, with best practices and opportunities established. These will potentially be applicable to the development of similar virtual environments across a wide range of disciplines and subject matter.

Tools and Methodology

The project comprises of two phases. Firstly, the development of the virtual field trip environment, and secondly, the subsequent assessment of its effectiveness and viability as an alternative to traditional fieldwork. The virtual environment is to be comprised of an interactive map of renewable energy installations in Devon and Cornwall, with site information including technical details, images and videos provided by students and staff attached to each site. This is to be created using Google Earth, ArcGIS Earth and H5P ‘hotspot image’ tools. 

Detailed three-dimensional free-roaming virtual environments of two to three selected sites are then to be developed using InVEnTA and ArcGIS Earth software. These will incorporate more in-depth information including videos and images taken on site, interviews with site operators, technical data on the renewable energy technologies present and discussion of environmental factors. This is to be obtained through student research and site visits, in addition to pre-existing resources available from staff and previous field trip activities. Due to the large and ever-increasing number of renewable energy sites in the region, continued development of site-specific three-dimensional virtual environments will continue beyond the end of the project to encompass ever more sites.

Student collaboration throughout the development stages will inform best practice and guidelines for creating similar virtual environments. Student feedback on the final product is to be collated through focus groups and surveys and will be utilised to assess efficacy as a learning tool and viability as an alternative to in person field trips.

Dissemination of Project Outcomes

The project aims to produce training materials for students and staff to utilise the resource once the research project has finished. This will allow the map to be developed further and provide a tool for similar projects within different locations and disciplines.

Interim and final reports will be completed to be made available through the ALDinHE website, with results planned for publication in the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. In addition, outcomes are to be communicated through presentations as part of the LD@3 programme and/or suitable ALDinHE conference. The final product is also to be made available to a wider audience through a MOOC or website.

The Research Team

The project will be carried out primarily by a team of three Digital Learning Developers within the University of Exeter’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. The core team members are David Trudgeon, Eira James and Josh Oldridge. The team has come together over their joint interest in virtual fieldwork as a tool for promoting inclusivity and broader interest in pedagogic techniques. The team consists of recent University of Exeter graduates in the disciplines of renewable energy, mathematics, English and geology, offering a student perspective and broad interdisciplinary experience. The project lead also has recent experience in conducting research and communicating findings through journal publications and conference presentations. 

The core team will be supported by current academics in the University of Exeter’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, including Dr Helen Smith, Director of Education in Renewable Energy, and Prof Barrie Cooper, Director of Digitally Enhanced Learning.


  1. O. Çalişkan, Virtual field trips in education of earth and environmental sciences, Procedia – Soc. Behav. Sci. 15 (2011) 3239–3243.
  2. M. Seifan, D. Dada, A. Berenjian, The effect of virtual field trip as an introductory tool for an engineering real field trip, Educ. Chem. Eng. 27 (2019) 6–11.
  3. C.Y. Chang, M.C. Lin, C.H. Hsiao, 3D compound virtual field trip system and its comparisons with an actual field trip, Proc. – 2009 9th IEEE Int. Conf. Adv. Learn. Technol. ICALT 2009. (2009) 6–7.
  4. A.R. Jacobson, R. Militello, P.C. Baveye, Development of computer-assisted virtual field trips to support multidisciplinary learning, Comput. Educ. 52 (2009) 571–580.

Final report

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Understanding Arts-Based Methods for the Virtual World of Teaching

Dr Selen Kars-Unluoglu –  University of the West of England 


Arts-based methods which traditionally rely on engagement with material artefacts (e.g. LEGO® bricks, finger puppets, craft materials) have been on the rise in management learning and teaching. However, COVID-19 has challenged educators to adapt these methods to online teaching environments with a substantial impact on learning development and learner experiences. 

This project, through collaborative and mixed methods research design, seeks to deepen our understanding of the pedagogy of arts-methods with an aim to explore the effective transferability to online teaching environments.  

The research setting is a management education programme delivered in partnership with two HE institutions (in the UK and Turkey) that introduces learners to arts-based teaching methods and supporting pedagogies by getting learners to experiment with taught techniques to develop their own practice as management educators. The programme was disrupted by COVID-19 forcing educators improvise ways to teach arts-based methods virtually. With a commitment to scholarly approach to research teaching and learning development, this project will inquire into educator and learner experiences in this setting. 

This will be done by organising focussed discussion meetings and a co-creation workshop to bring together educators and learners to encourage reflection on experiences and best practices translate arts-based methods to online environments. Combined with questionaries, and participant and non-participant observation of training sessions this project will provide rich insights into the future of arts-based methods for virtual world of learning development that is unresearched and that this project explores by capturing lived experiences of educators and learners. 


Huizinga (1949) describes humans as play-species with their learning supported by elements of play. Whilst play is mostly unlearnt in adulthood, (re)introducing it in teaching can create a richer interaction with the subjects taught. The idea of ‘play’ in education is well-explored to explain the process through which a person (commonly a young child) learns to make sense of the world and to think more widely and completely (Vygostsky, 1980). 

The role of play in the form of arts-based methods is on the rise in management teaching and learning (Taylor and Ladkin, 2009). These methods can enable learners “to apprehend the ‘essence’ of a concept or tacit knowledge, revealing depths and connections that more propositional and linear developmental orientations cannot” (Taylor and Ladkin, 2009: 56). Learners can use artefacts to indicate concepts, like building a LEGO® citadel to embody the bureaucratic control in organisations. This helps making abstract ideas become concrete, visual and therefore more understandable (Malafouris, 2004). Their real value, however, resides in their transformative power. The introduction of ‘play’ and ‘objects to play with’ in a classroom is unsettling for learners – a “disorientating dilemma” an antecedent for transformative learning (Taylor, 2008) encouraging the examination of taken-for-granted perspectives, and the change to the way in which we make meaning (Mezirow & Associates, 2000). 

COVID-19 has disrupted HE by forcing institutions to move teaching online. The disruption is exacerbated for educators who engage with arts-based methods. This is because these methods traditionally rely heavily on engagement with material artefacts like LEGO® bricks (James, 2013), finger puppets (Kempster et al., 2015), craft materials to build masks (Taylor and Ladkin, 2009) to allow learners to move from thinging to thinking (Knappett & Malafouris, 2008). COVID-19 challenged educators to get learners thinging in online environments without the opportunity to pass on, share, co-engage with material artefacts in a physical setting. Educators are trying to quickly adapt to teaching online and understand best practices. Learners are developing opinions on what does and does not work based on their experiences.  

According to experts, the disruption caused by COVID-19 is here to stay. This project aims to gather and share insights to support and improve arts-based management education in the (post)COVID-19 world. 

Research Context: 

The project researches these issues in the context of a management education programme designed and delivered by the University of West of England (UWE) faculty to a group of management educators in the Izmir University of Economics, Turkey (IUE). This programme, led by this project’s Research Lead who is an experienced facilitator in using arts-based methods on all academic levels, aimed to introduce learners to arts-based methods and supporting pedagogies in an experiential format by getting learners to experiment the methods to develop their practice as management educators. 

The programme was disrupted by COVID-19 forcing the Research Lead and her team of tutors at UWE to adapt their teaching and improvise ways to teach arts-based methods virtually. With a commitment to scholarly approach to research teaching and learning development, this project will inquire in this context with an aim to:

  1. Deepen our understanding of the pedagogic approach of arts-based methods;  
  2. Explore the transferability of these methods to online teaching environments; 
  3. Understand the impact of the move to online environments on educators and learners. 

Research Design: 

Adopting a mixed methods approach, the research design includes four elements (observed training sessions; questionnaires; focussed discussion meetings; co-creation workshop) to capture educators’ and learners’ experiences, thoughts and feelings about the use of arts-based methods in online environments. 

1 Observed training sessions:

The Research Lead and the Collaborator, who are both skilled qualitative researchers, will observe 12 training sessions delivered by UWE to IUE to capture insights into arts-based teaching in action. In three of these sessions they will be participant observers (as educators and as learners) engaging critically and reflexively in their own teaching and learning practices to gain deeper understandings into lived experiences. Working in partnership with the Collaborator in participant and non-participant observations will allow the Research Lead to make sense of HE learning inclusively – from educator and learner perspectives. Field notes will feed into analysis and the design of focused discussion meetings and the co-creation workshop. 

2 Questionnaires:

An initial questionnaire will be administered to educators and learners who experienced arts-based methods in online environments. The aim is to establish key challenges and opportunities and collect short stories from learners capturing their experience. The stories will provide rich material for narrative analysis (Polkinghorne, 1995) and will set up common vocabulary to refer to during focussed discussion meetings and the co-creation workshop. 

3 Focussed discussion meetings:

Focussed discussion meetings (Hennink, 2014), with educators (5 people) and a sample of learners (5 people) will be held after observed training sessions. They will provide perspectives into teaching competencies required to facilitate arts-based learning in online environments, and into learner experiences. An hourly-paid research assistant will support the learner discussion meetings to allow participants to express their lived experience in greater depth in their native language (i.e., Turkish). Research assistant support in this context is crucial for learners to better make sense of their learning experience. The Collaborator’s input to secure contribution from learners and to recruit research assistant is critical. The data will be analysed through thematic analysis (Saldaña, 2012).

4 Co-creation workshop:

The project will conclude with a co-creation workshop to reflect on experiences and best practices identified from the previous three data collection elements. Asset mapping (Alexiou et al, 2016) will be used to stimulate ideas and identify best practices for translating arts-based methods to online environments. 

Upon project completion, new insights will be gained into the future of arts-based methods for virtual world of learning development. These insights will be translated into new teaching practices and adopted by the project team and their institutions in the spirit of on-going learning and commitment to professional development. Journal articles and conference presentations will share project outputs with the HE community impacting and furthering the experiences of a wider community of learners. 

5 Ethics:

This research has been approved by UWE Faculty of Business and Law Research Ethics Committee (Ref:  FBL.21.01.015).

We subscribe to the principle of voluntary participation. Consequently;

• Participants will be provided with enough information (verbally and written) so that they understand our aim and scope and how we will use their data. This information will be free from complex terminology, to enable them to make an informed decision whether or not to participate. The appropriate mechanisms for documenting consent will include the completion and return of a consent form.

• The consent form will state that participants are free to withdraw from the research within a month from the collection of data, without prior notice and/or providing any reason. This will also be verbally expressed before each data collection activity.

• The research involves collection of personal data, for example, opinions, voice and video recordings. Appropriate sensitivity to such data is vital to maintain confidentiality and integrity of the people involved or related to the research.

• Since participants will share information about how they experience the teaching environment and their experiences which might involve frustrations and disappointments, they will be assured (verbally and written) that no information they disclose will be used against them, now or in the future.

• Participants’ identities will not be revealed in the dissemination by achieving pseudonymity and anonymity. The audio and video recordings will be transcribed shortly after the data is collected and stored using unique pseudonyms for each participant. Following pseudonymisation the original recordings will be destroyed. The audio and video recordings will not be used directly in any presentation.

• All data will be collected virtually and as such hard copies of data will not exist. Data will be stored on UWE OneDrive accessible only to the researchers.

Practice sharing and dissemination routes

• Dissemination through research process: The project brings together educators from two institutions and learners practicing management education in different institutions. Their interaction in the research process will deepen our, but also their, understanding of the research topic enhancing self-awareness.

• Dissemination through research outputs: Upon project completion, new insights will be gained into the future of arts-based methods for online learning. These will be translated into new teaching practices and adopted by the project team in the spirit of on-going commitment to professional development.

• Dissemination through curriculum development: Findings will inform learning and teaching practices at the research team’s own institutions on several undergraduate, postgraduate and vocational modules.

• International dissemination:  The research team and participants are involved in international networks for management education providers.  They will share outputs with these networks impacting and furthering experiences of a wider community of educators and learners.

• Dissemination within academe: Findings will be published as a JLDHE paper and disseminated widely through conference presentations (e.g. ALDinHE 2021, Chartered ABS Annual Conference, UWE Festival of Learning), webinars and podcasts (e.g. UWE Future Impact Podcast Series) and journal articles in HE and management learning journals to share outputs with the HE community.

• Dissemination beyond academe: The research team and participants are heavily involved in executive education programmes targeting management practitioners. The application of outputs in these programmes has the potential to inform executives’ people/ team/ organisational development practices, as most of the teaching methods can be adapted to be used for team away days, ideation sessions, planning meetings etc.


Alexiou, K., Agusita, E., Alevizou, G., Chapain, C., Zamenopoulos, T. and Turner, J. (2016) Asset Mapping and Civic Creativity. In: Hargreaves, I. and Hartley, J., eds. (2016) The Creative Citizen Unbound: How Social Media and DIY Culture Contribute to Democracy, Communities and the Creative Economy. Bristol: Policy Press, pp. 181-204.

Saldaña, J (2012) The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers. London: SAGE. Hennink, M.M. (2014) Focus group discussions, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Huizinga, J. (1949[1938]). Homo Ludens: Study of the Play-Element in Culture, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.  

James, A. R. (2013). Lego Serious Play: a three-dimensional approach to learning development. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, 6.

Kempster, S. and Turner, A. and Heneberry, P. and Stead, V. and Elliott, C. (2015) The “finger puppets”: examining the use of artifacts to create liminal moments in management education. Journal of Management Education, 39 (3). pp. 433-438.

Knappett, C., Malafouris, L. (Eds.). (2008). Material agency: Towards a non-anthropocentric approach. New York, NY: Springer.

Malafouris, L. (2004). The cognitive basis of material engagement: Where brain, body and culture conflate. In E. DeMarrais, C. Gosden, & C. Renfrew (Eds.), Rethinking materiality: The engagement of mind with the material world (pp. 53–62). Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Mezirow & Associates. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco, CA.: Jossey-Bass.

Polkinghorne, D. E. (1995). Narrative configuration in qualitative analysis. Qualitative Studies in Education, 8, pp. 5–23.

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Using student engagement data to evaluate online activities and resources

Tomas Nicholas, Eleanor Sandison and Valentine Kozsla –  University of Exeter 


The project will investigate which digital learning tools students are more likely to engage with, how students are engaging with this content, and the reasons students are interacting with such  tools beyond the content type being used. This will include breaking down our findings by  different student groups, such as by subject, and considering the impact of different teaching  practice. We will analyse our data to determine what changes may be needed to improve  engagement with digital learning tools. This can be used as a core tenet of the design or  evaluation of new tools being developed or considered for use by universities. 

The project will produce a method for performing this type of evaluation. We will work  with relevant module leaders to implement this method, which will include surveying of, and  interviews with, students. This methodology will be published, allowing the evaluation to be  replicated by other departments or higher education institutions who may be using different tools and methods. 

The project will directly impact students by providing academics, at our university and  across the wider higher education and academic development community, with insight into what  drives student engagement in a digital setting. This can be used to inform how digital learning is  incorporated into teaching in the future as teaching increasingly moves towards a flipped  classroom approach. As Digital Learning Developers, we are well placed to promote the inclusion of digital teaching methods into university practice and would benefit from being able to make  data-backed recommendations.



The UK is experiencing a second wave of COVID-19 infections, forcing educational establishments  to restructure their operations around social distancing measures. At the University of Exeter, one  of the most significant adaptations to the pandemic has been to pivot educational offerings from  in-person lecture-based teaching to a “blended” learning model where students engage with a  combination of online and face-to-face activities and resources. This large-scale implementation  of online activities and resources provides a unique opportunity to investigate student interaction  with them. This will allow us to draw conclusions on which practices are most effective.  Furthermore, the findings of this project will support practitioners in other Higher Education  Institutions (HEIs) to make informed decisions when using a blended learning approach. Looking  to the wider literature, there’s evidence1that a blended learning approach may improve  attainment and retention rates of students. It is therefore imperative that the adjustments made  for this period of crisis be studied in detail, as it has the potential to inform decision-making  around the future of Higher Education. 

Each taught module at the University of Exeter has a corresponding webpage powered by  the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) tool Moodle containing asynchronous lectures, activities,  and resources. Whilst determining student engagement with traditional lectures was  straightforward, based on attendance and interactions, much of this engagement feedback is not  immediately available to the lecturer when using a blended approach. While previous studies into  student engagement with VLEs have determined links between engagement and staff contact2,  attainment3, and generalised best practice4, they have not identified specific online learning tools  with which students engage most. Investigation of these tools will allow HEIs to maintain  excellent teaching quality and high student satisfaction. The aim of this project is therefore to  investigate how different activities and resources on the VLE are engaged with, and how much  these affect the overall engagement of students with a module.


The project will aim to answer:

1. Which digital learning tools are students more likely to engage with?

2. How are students engaging with these tools, and do separate groupings of students  engage with these tools in distinct ways?

3. What factors affect student engagement with a piece of digital content, considering both  within the digital content and external factors?


We will work with the Data Governance and Ethics team to get full ethical approval for all  collection and use of student data.

Aim 1: The digital learning tools hosted on, or linked to from, all Engineering, Mathematics and  Physical Sciences VLE pages will be investigated. From the beginning of the project, we will  collaborate with the University’s Technology Enhanced Learning Team who will enable us to  implement data collection tool plugins into the VLE. In parallel to this, data will also be ‘web  scraped’ from the VLE using Python’s ‘beautifulsoup’ package. This dataset will consist of around  3100 students’ interactions across around 500 VLE pages. The complete dataset will show  multiple facets of student engagement: how many students interact with the tools, how  frequently each student interacts with each tool, as well as the rate of completion when  applicable. The data set is expected to be constructed by the end of the January.

Once the data from the VLE has been collected, we will survey students to better  understand how well they feel they engage with the tools.

Aim 2: Where applicable, the data gathered from the VLE will provide us with detailed statistics  on student interactions with different resources and activities. Furthermore, logs of how each student has clicked and moved around the tool will be collected.

We will survey students to identify how different groupings of students view and interact  with a variety of VLE tools. Our aim is to survey 250 students. These also present an opportunity  to control for various extraneous factors, such as working habits and students’ feelings on their overall university experience. These surveys will be promoted to students in late February. To access further background information about students, we will work with the Business  Intelligence team. We will do this so that the analytics we receive are separate from personal  student details and to ensure our work is GDPR compliant.

Aim 3: The collected data will be analysed using a variety of computing tools, most notably R. R is  reliable and provides packages specifically made for statistical analyses of large datasets. This data  analysis will aim to supply evidence of the relative merits of certain digital tools and their impact  on student engagement. This analysis will take place throughout February.

We will construct interview questions, informed by our data analysis, which will examine  student feeling of engagement from various tools and the factors that influenced their choice in  using the tool. We will interview 15 students. These interviews will take place in mid-March.

Comparing the findings from our different approaches should lead to the development of  a more wholistic view of engagement, synthesising qualitative and quantitative approaches. This analysis will take place in late March. The findings will also be compared to existing literature in  this field, allowing us to better understand their impact within the wider context of pedagogy.


We will produce a report for publication in The Journal for Learning Development in Higher  Education. This will include a reproducible methodology for other research groups and higher  education providers to follow. We will also present our findings at the next ALDinHE conference  and apply to present at an LD@3 session. This will be adapted into two workshops to advise  academics on how to incorporate tools which are successful at engaging students. We will also  visit one local school and one other regional HEI to showcase our project to teaching staff.

Through our roles as Digital Learning Developers, we will provide ongoing support to academics trying to incorporate our findings as they develop their modules for next year.

We are looking to explore the relationships between learning design, pedagogy, digital tools and student engagement in a blended or online setting. The direct impact of our project is to assist Learning Developers and academic staff to make informed decisions on blended or online learning, what tools best support these, and therefore how to design better learning experiences.

We will create a cross-discipline focus group of academics prior to the data collection. From this we will seek to understand the pedagogy used within their modules and identify how digital tools are being used to implement effective learning and teaching. The focus group will allow us to investigate which different pedagogical purposes different digital tools are being used for.

It is important to involve the academics in every step of this project to ensure we have their pedagogical thoughts, experience and questions intertwined into this project. The findings from our analysis will be shared with an existing pedagogy research group so we can gain greater insight into the pedagogical implications of our findings. After our analysis, we will interview individual academics whose activities show significantly different levels of engagement from the average. We will aim to understand which pedagogies and learning development skills are being utilised to cause this. We will ask questions designed to identify the different styles of engagement of students.

We are looking to identify combinations of digital tools and learning design which lead to a greater number of students participating and an increase in depth of engagement. We will be using our interactions with academics to determine which activities are designed to create deeper engagement. Factors contributing to this may include challenge; student behaviour, such as rewinding or re-watching a video; and if the activity is core to the module or an extension.


1López-Pérez, Pérez-López, and Rodríguez-Ariza (2011), Blended learning in higher education: Students’  perceptions and their relation to outcomes,

2 Dixson (2010), Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging?,

3 Bergdahl, Nouri and Fors (2019), Disengagement, engagement and digital skills in technology-enhanced  learning,

4 Dale and Lane (2007), A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing? An Analysis of Student Engagement with Virtual  Learning Environments, wed=y

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Reading in the digital age: a resource for students

Helen Hargreaves – Lancaster University


Our initial project (funded by ALDinHE in 2019) explored students’ perceptions and practices about reading academic texts electronically, to find out about how they navigate the challenges associated with this format and the reading strategies they employ. Our aims were (1) to consider how students’ approaches to reading digital texts compared with those discussed in study guides and (2) to draw conclusions about how our findings might inform our work as learning developers, in our teaching and conversations with students on this topic. 

Data was collected via six focus groups with a total of 20 undergraduate students in their second and final year from a range of academic disciplines. Topics discussed included: reading preferences; the joys and frustrations of reading texts digitally; reading and note-taking strategies; and support with academic reading. Students’ reflections on their approaches and attitudes towards digital reading have provided us with insights that have implications for different groups: publishers, academic staff, authors of study guides, learning developers, and of course students themselves. In extending the project, we want to use these insights to inform the development of a resource to form the basis of discussions with new students about academic reading, as well as serving as a stand-alone resource. We would produce an interactive resource (using either Xerte or Articulate), with the help of a digital intern. The resource would encourage students to take a reflective approach about choices related to text format; provide activities for exploring diverse types of digital text; and look at approaches, tools, and techniques for reading and note-taking in the digital age. 


Our initial project explored students’ perceptions and practices about reading academic texts electronically, allowing for insights into how they navigate challenges and the reading strategies they employ. Despite challenges due to coronavirus, we carried out focus groups online with 20 students. Students were towards the end of their second or final year of an undergraduate degree and from across the university. The students, many of whom had recently finished dissertations, gave rich and insightful reflections of strategies they had developed over two/three years of university study. These insights have implications for different groups: publishers, academic staff, authors of study guides, learning developers, and of course students themselves (Lea and Jones, 2011). In extending the project, we want to focus on the final two – drawing on what we learnt from our research to develop a resource that can be used by learning developers to engage students with talking about their reading, and that can be used as a stand-alone resource for students. 

Preliminary analysis of our focus groups shows that students have a nuanced appreciation of the advantages and disadvantages of electronic and print formats and have developed strategies to read effectively across a variety of digital formats and devices and in different physical locations.  These strategies include utilising digital tools, including searching within documents to find relevant information, using digital highlighters and making digital notes whilst reading.  However, students also showed awareness of the affordances of reading printed texts and reported that reading in print leads to fewer distractions, better recall and a lower likelihood of headaches and eye strain. Interestingly, some students explained they use physical and digital tools and texts simultaneously to maximize engagement. As one student explained, even when reading in print “I can’t really read if I don’t have internet access… because I constantly need to Google when I was reading anything”.

In our original application we proposed to disseminate our findings to the Learning Development community via a conference paper and journal article, which we are currently on track to do.  However, we always hoped this research would also inform the creation of resources that students can use to develop effective strategies for reading electronic academic texts.  We feel that the disruption of our original data collection plan due to COVID-19 created an opportunity to create these resources.

The resource would primarily be targeted at students at the start of their studies, although we expect it to have relevance for UG students moving from first year to second, where often there is a step-up in type and amount of reading. The resource will cover three main areas: (1) Reading for your studies: digital, print or both? (2) Types of digital texts (3) Reading and note-taking in the digital age. It would be accessible both as a comprehensive online interactive resource for students (using Xerte), and as a series of individual resources (handouts, slides, video-clips), that can be drawn on by learning developers when engaging students on the topic of academic reading in workshops, for example. We would employ a digital intern to help develop these resources and would make them available for the wider learning development community through submitting them to the Learnhigher resource page. The focus and content of this resource is also supported by the work of Mizrachi et al (2018). In the remainder of this proposal, we will outline the three aspects of reading we intend the resource to cover.

Reading for your studies: digital, print or both?

In this section, we would encourage students to consider potential advantages and disadvantages of the two formats. The overall aim would be to help students plan for their reading, considering if, in what situations, and how much of their reading they might do using print/digital formats. Activities would ask students to reflect on their reading preferences and experiences so far, and their expectations of reading at university – the purpose, amount, depth. The resource would then critically explore factors that influence choice of format, including the trade-off between practical reasons and quality of reading experience. This trade-off came up frequently in the focus groups: print reading was often associated with better concentration and engagement (see also Delgado et al. 2018; Mangen et al. 2013), but digital texts were used more frequently, largely due to accessibility, cost, and environmental concerns. 

Types of digital text

In this section, we would focus on the variety of digital text-types that students are likely to encounter. Our focus groups show that reading experience varies depending on the format of the digital text. PDFs, for example, presented different challenges and affordances to reading an e-book online. This led us to conclude that it is possible to view electronic texts on a scale of ‘digital-ness’, with some formats mirroring more closely the experience of print reading. The aim of this section would be to help students explore and develop familiarity with the different types – including layout, index, tools for annotation, practicalities of access. We would ask students to select texts from their reading lists, and provide activities that explore format, and encourage navigation of the different types. We would encourage reflection on how they might approach reading the various formats. We would also consult with our faculty librarian colleagues, asking for insights as to the functions of the types of e-book readers etc. subscribed to by university libraries. 

Reading and note-taking in the digital age

This section would focus on reading and note-taking strategies. In addition to considering general approaches to engaging with academic texts (e.g., being clear about reading purpose; using clues to get an overview of a text; choosing appropriate reading styles; asking questions to gain deeper understanding/develop criticality), this section would also look at the impact of text format on these strategies. We would introduce tools and techniques mentioned in the focus groups related to digital reading, and introduce tasks to practise reading and note-taking in the ways suggested. We would then encourage critical reflection on these approaches, so that students are not only aware of the potential benefits, but also mindful of how to mitigate any downsides. Some examples of digital-specific approaches included using the search function to find key terms, using split-screen to compare texts/to take notes electronically, and having tool tabs open to help with reading (e.g., subject-specific dictionaries). Finally, we would look at how different formats might be used to complement each other, for example reading in one format, note-taking in the other; or doing a survey of digital texts to decide which ones to print and read in more depth. 

Whilst we are still in the early stages of planning this resource, we feel there is a gap for learning development materials/self-study resources into the area of academic reading, in which text format takes a more central role. 


Delgado P., Vargas C., Ackerman R. &  Salmerón L. (2018) Don’t throw away your printed books: a meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension. Educational Research Review, 25, 23-38

Lea, M.R. and Jones, S. (2011) Digital literacies in higher education: exploring textual and technological practice. Studies in Higher Education, 36 (4) 377-393 (390-391). 

Mangen, Walgermo, & Brønnick. (2013). Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal of Educational Research, 58(C), 61-68.

Mizrachi D., Salaz A.M, Kurbanoglu S., & Boustany J., on behalf of the ARFIS Research Group (2018) Academic reading format preferences and behaviors among university students worldwide: a comparative survey analysis. PLoS ONE 13(5): e0197444. (p.4)

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