Student Experiences Learning with Technology in the Pandemic

Student Experiences Learning with Technology in the Pandemic


For the past 18 years, EDUCAUSE Research has gathered data on the experiences and attitudes of undergraduate students with information technology (IT) at their respective institutions, making it one of the largest and longest-running data-collection efforts of its kind. Historically, we have published an annual, landscape view of our findings covering a wide range of topics related to student technology experiences, use, and attitudes. However, as most institutions pivoted to remote learning as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic in 2020, we also pivoted to conduct a special fall 2020 study to gain insights on the student experience during what has been an exceptional time of disruption. In this report, we share results from the study related to student experiences with technology in the for-credit courses they were taking in fall 2020 in which they felt they were learning the most. Specifically, we asked students to think about their best course—the one in which they learned the most—and tell us about the learning environments and modalities of those courses, as well as instructors' uses of technology in, the organizational and design features of, and the most and least effective uses of technology they experienced in those courses.1 

For the fall 2020 study, 9,499 students from 58 institutions participated in the research. The quantitative findings in this report were developed using the 8,392 responses from 54 US institutions.

Key Findings

  • Pandemic learning happened everywhere and whenever. Learning environment appears to have played less of a role in determining students' evaluation of their learning experiences than did course modality. Full-time students favored synchronous online courses. Married students, students living off-campus, and students who are working full-time preferred online asynchronous courses.
  • Keep calm and embrace technology. Students reported that their instructors communicated effectively and demonstrated a reasoned and reasonable approach to technology use in their courses.
  • Significant learning experiences start with opportunities for student and instructor interaction. Synchronous courses tended to be rated as better organized with greater opportunities for student–instructor and student–student interaction.
  • The best technology experiences students had during the first semester of the pandemic were related to the use of the LMS, videoconferencing applications, and recorded lectures and access to specialized software. Regarding recorded lectures, the ability to review lecture materials whenever, wherever, and for however long respondents might need was seen as the major benefit of such recordings.
  • Students' worst technology experiences varied considerably but generally fall into one of three very broad categories: (1) explicit technology issues, (2) attempts to use technology that failed, and (3) poor pedagogical choices and course management practices.

Steps You Can Take

Institutional leaders should consider the following steps as they continue to respond to the most immediate needs of students and plan for a post-pandemic future.

  • Invest in the design, development, and implementation of hybrid course models and the people who support them. Student learning experiences during the pandemic suggest that quality learning experiences can and do occur in practically every combination of learning environment and course modality. Given that "mere exposure" and prior experiences shape student learning environment and modality preferences, institutions should continue offering courses in a variety of formats to meet what we expect to be increased student demand for options. Hybrid courses should no longer be viewed as an exception, an inconvenience, or supplemental revenue stream.
  • Connect faculty with instructional designers and instructional technologists. Build out faculty development programs and curricula that focus on technology-intensive teaching experiences and that serve all faculty regardless of their levels of experience and skill. Higher education's successful delivery of courses during the 2020–21 academic year has required many instructors to abandon their customary face-to-face classroom experiences in favor of the unfamiliar hybrid models in which many had no previous desire to teach. These instructors were able to create and deliver significant learning experiences due in no small part to the efforts of teaching and learning centers, instructional designers, and instructional technologists who developed and scaled faculty development and training programs. Scale these programs by developing and delivering asynchronous online versions for those instructors who need flexibility in their own schedules for faculty development.
  • Put students at the center of your teaching. In reviewing thousands of student responses about their best and worst experiences with technology during the fall 2020 term, two general truths emerged. The worst student experiences were inevitably linked to policies, practices, and approaches to teaching and learning with technology that were designed without the student experience (especially during a global pandemic) in mind. The best student experiences were the ones that were focused on student learning experiences and did so from a position of empathy, care, and flexibility. If we learn one thing from higher education's pandemic year it's that higher education needs to invest in promoting caring, student-centered, and adaptive pedagogies.

More Student Study Resources

© 2021 EDUCAUSE. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.

Citation for this work
D. Christopher Brooks. Student Experiences Learning with Technology in the Pandemic. Research report. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, April 2021.


  1. Because we asked students to keep in mind only the course in which they learned the most as they answered our questions, we lack a comparison group (e.g., the course in which they were learning the least, or all other courses) against which to contrast the findings reported here.