Global survey reveals sure-fire ways to ramp up student success & engagement in Asia's high-ed sector
Higher-education students in Asia are demanding convenience and flexibility in their studies and embracing technology with hybrid learning. Their academic success hinges upon access to reliable internet, technological devices, and wellbeing support.
These are key findings of the comprehensive 2022 State of Student Success and Engagement in Higher Education, based on 908 survey responses across the region.
The third annual study, the results were part of a global survey that Instructure, the makers of Canvas, conducted with Hanover Research in July 2022. They drew on 7,500-plus voices of students, administration, and faculty staff from the higher-education sector in 23 countries.
In a recent webinar, a panel of higher-education leaders from the Asian region discussed the report. They covered trends and issues facing the sector and offered their institutions creative approaches to deal with the shifts.
The panel included Dr Caroline Marian Santos-Enriquez, President of Our Lady of Fatima University in the Philippines. During the time she’s been at the helm, her university has grown to six campuses across the Philippines and now has 55,000-plus full-time students. A fellow panel member was Dr Arnan (Roger) Sipitakiat, Director of the Teaching and Learning Innovation Center at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University. It has more than 33,000 full-time students. Instructure’s Vice-President of International Marketing, Edward Bray, chaired the webinar, which you can see in full here [insert link here, please].
Hybrid learning here to stay
The State of HE Asia report revealed a strong student appetite for technology.
Seven in 10 students in Asia said they were keen for hybrid courses, and more tech for in-person courses. As well, more than half wanted to take some courses fully online. Eighty percent of students said technology helped them organise their lives more.
“Hybrid is quite normal now,” said Dr Sipitakiat. “But we have the challenge of students questioning the value of attending class in person.
“For universities trying to compete with the growing online learning industry, it’s important to think about what value we’re offering through the in-person experience. Ideas like the flipped classroom are relevant where you make your lectures available online and spend more time in class on active learning discussions.”
What also helps bring hybrid learning to life is an intuitive learning management system (LMS), said Dr Santos-Enriquez. That means universities such as hers can offer students the choice to learn in person yet have digital access to their course content and lectures anytime.
“The beauty of having a strong LMS is ensuring a seamless delivery of instruction and assessment and that you have the analytics around that,” she said.
Opening doors to careers
Skills competency, being work/career ready, and developing holistically are critical to student success in Asia, the survey found. Nine out of ten survey respondents rated these as priorities.
Though not new, skill-based learning is a “hot topic”, said Dr Sipitakiat. It involves hands-on activities, such as work-integrated education. For example, Chiang Mai’s arts students will do workplace learning with the same company throughout their four-year course, with many continuing employment there after graduation.
“Skill-based learning points to multidisciplinary learning. When you work in a real environment, it amplifies the importance that the world requires a multidisciplinary person to excel,” he said.
Meanwhile, career readiness builds on soft skills, such as creativity, problem-solving, digital literacy, and communication, not normally part of the curriculum.
Higher education institutions were also introducing more “systematic approaches like outcome-based education”, said Dr Sipitakiat. This ensures courses align with academic and broader outcomes, such as career readiness.
“It’s a global trend happening right now.”
Focus on competencies & skills
The Asia-Pacific region is leading the global charge on foregrounding competency-based and skills-based education, the State of Higher Education survey showed. More than seven in 10 higher-education sector administrators in Asia said competency-based education was the most important factor for students. Sixty-two percent of students agreed.
Dr Sipitakiat says: “Getting this approach right is an incentive for administrators whose jobs depend on how well they do it. They see it as an important aspect and have a higher-level picture of the whole program, which students might not have. The latter just want their degree to get them ready for a specific career.”
However, those students may not appreciate the workplace demands that graduates have specific competencies and skills, says Dr Santos-Enriquez.
“So, we emphasise to students early the importance of being serious about their practical and academic subjects that help hone these skills as they move forward to their practicum. We make sure the curriculum we develop is always in sync with what our stakeholders need by talking regularly to industry and sectors.”
Their universities represent a shift many countries across Asia are making from a standards-based to competency-based curricula, according to UNESCO.
The first approach focuses on standards to drive quality improvement in learning. Meanwhile, competency-based curricula leverage student potential to ensure all learners succeed. That involves institutions rethinking their approach to instruction - start with the core concepts, then tease out learning outcomes and key concepts.
They typically build out their curricula offering:
- Differentiated learning and instruction
- Active learning experiences, and
- Support in various learning environments and pathways
But it’s not just about turning disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and practical knowledge into courses. Skills are important too. That’s according to the OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030 concept note. It says skills can be cognitive, metacognitive, social, emotional, and practical. Importantly, knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values are key to building competencies.
Across the region, institutions and students used learning management systems mostly for homework and assignments, tests and quizzes and to share materials.
There’s also been a considerable uptake of tech since pre-pandemic days.
That’s when OLFU started using the Canvas LMS. With four typhoons usually hitting the Philippines each year plus other catastrophes, the university wanted an LMS to “guarantee student learning” continues no matter what, said Dr Santos-Enriquez.
“Since then, we’ve been able to leverage synchronous and asynchronous instruction using this very well-integrated LMS. We’ve maximised the use of it. For example, we use it for attendance and data analytics, including checking the quality of test questions and academic integrity of answers.”
Chiang Mai University has also been melding more technology into its pedagogies since before the pandemic.
“Technology adoption means [institutional] survival. The pandemic created a new set of expectations – the need for a communication platform, but not quite an LMS yet. Our instructors had to find a systematic way to communicate with students, as some never set foot on campus,” said Dr Sipitakiat.
Some of his university instructors continue to use Microsoft Teams and Google Suite to communicate with students and as a basic LMS. A growing cohort of experienced instructors “who want to use rubrics and track outcomes” has transitioned to the more fully featured LMS. Because the Canvas LMS is an open platform, it integrates with a lot of other technology, so is complementary.
Ensuring access to learning
Choice of technological access also works for students. In some parts of Asia, socio-economic factors mean they might have:
- One mobile phone for a whole family
- Intermittent internet connectivity
- No dedicated study space, yet
- Paid work obligations, too.
For example, nine in 10 OLFU students only access their online learning through their mobile phones. Those based in mountainous or far-flung provinces may also have unreliable internet. Multiple challenges, particularly for low-income students, means instructors must stay on point in their lectures, being mindful of students’ data download limits.
Dr Santos- Enriquez said: “I was teaching online and saw some of my students were at the workplace selling things. I was so inspired they could multi-task and continue their studies while working. It shows that learning can happen anywhere.”
But the situation still raises equity issues. Socio-economic status continues to drive a wedge into the digital divide, and it affects students’ ability to learn. The State of Higher Education in Asia survey showed 68% of high-income and 46% of low-income students reported being “extremely” or “somewhat” engaged in coursework.
Over in Thailand, Dr Sipitakiat’s university tracks how students access the Canvas LMS.
“We’re seeing differences in the participation and achievement levels of students who access learning through a single device, such as a smart phone, and those who use multiple devices.
“The LMS can be a good starting point to give us a more holistic view of what’s going on with each student to look at how we can lift engagement.”
Those access issues mean institutions must consider ways of diversifying instruction and assessment options for students needing more support. That’s the essence of competency and skills-based curricula, as mentioned above.
Spotlight on wellbeing
So, apart from digital access issues, wellbeing issues may hamper students from engaging more fully with their learning.
“Instructors might have this illusion a class is going well, but if it’s only a certain proportion of students are interacting with them and the larger group stays quiet, technology can help with this. An LMS is a way to support this group that’s scalable for large universities,” said Dr Sipitakiat.
“The pandemic has severely impacted students’ feeling of belonging to an institution and it’s continuing, but improving, due to the trend of increasing in-person learning and extra-curricular activities. Today’s students have smaller social circles, so there’s a generation of graduates that might be quite vulnerable when entering the job market.”
He spoke about institutions using technology to raise awareness among instructors about policies.
And, at OLFU, about 13,000 students have tapped into virtual counselling, spiritual counselling, and reflection retreats online. The university set up an ongoing virtual concierge service to answer students’ questions during business hours.
The State of Higher Education report found other creative approaches to support student wellbeing across Asia also included campus events, staff training, mentorship programs, and mental health apps.