University students’ experiences of online learning as a result of a pandemic

Project leader: Dr Dianne Forbes

Team members

  • Associate Professor Cheryl Brown, University of Canterbury
  • Dr Dilani Gedera, Auckland University of Technology
  • Ashwini Datt, University of Auckland
  • Dr Maggie Hartnett, Massey University

Project dates: 15 July 2020 - continuing


In March, 2020, COVID-19 forced universities to shift to a fully online mode of course delivery. While online teaching and learning is by no means new to NZ universities, the shift to emergency remote teaching was sudden. There was an immediate focus on the teaching experience, and how university lecturers could rapidly start teaching online. In the meantime, the perspectives and experiences of university students went unconsidered at first. Then gradually, concerns started to emerge, with media reports and student petitions focused on the inadequacy of universities' online learning provisions.

Aim of the Research

The aim of this research is to understand how students studying at New Zealand universities experienced online learning during the pandemic. We are interested in the perspectives and lived experiences of domestic and international students across universities and disciplines, at all stages of study, and regardless of geographic location. Our research asks:

  • How have students engaged with online study?
  • What has worked well, for whom, and under what conditions?
  • What has been more challenging, and/or less effective?
  • Where are the key gaps in support for student learning?
  • What simple steps might universities and staff take to support students who are new to learning online at a time of crisis?
  • To what extent has it been business as usual for students with online learning experience, and what can be learned from this?

This is a mixed-methods study commencing with a large-scale online questionnaire, followed by online focus groups, and some individual semi-structured interviews, with students at various universities.

Importance of the research

Emergent literature tends to be written from a teacher/lecturer point of view, focusing on how to make a rapid shift to online teaching. Missing from this literature is nuanced consideration of student perspectives. How teachers teach online, and how students experience and learn online can be poles apart (Forbes & Gedera, 2019), necessitating explicit attention to how students experience online teaching and learning. In particular, online students may engage in different ways (Brown et al, 2019).

The prominent accounts are from the United States and United Kingdom. We seek to bring New Zealand students' perspectives to the debate. There is as yet a lack of up-to-date evidence, with a tendency to recycle old trends/resources to fit a new set of circumstances. We seek to generate new understandings  based on the perspectives and experiences of domestic and international students at New Zealand universities studying online in March-May, 2020, and beyond.

Recently, in New Zealand, student concerns have emerged, as international students have generated petitions, and student associations have condemned a lack of consultation and consideration of student voice. Our research seeks to generate an evidence base, to bring balance, and research-informed insight to the debate. We will explore how diverse students have experienced online learning during the pandemic. We hope our findings will enable reflection on lessons learned, and will prompt recommendations for ongoing student support and quality online learning in the longer term.

Potential research impact?

We intend to share our final report with every university in NZ, and with key student associations (NZUSA, NZISA). We do not seek to compare universities' performances, or to stoke the fires of competition. Rather, we hope that learning about diverse student experiences will give insight into practices that were supportive of learning. It is these practices that we seek to share in the hope of informing future directions in online learning at New Zealand universities. Our research will be presented and published in the usual ways, and we will implement changes within our own respective institutions and practices.

Project team


Dianne Forbes

Dilani Gedera

Maggie Hartnett

Ashwini Datt

Cheryl Brown