10 February, 2021
Launch of timely report of the Irish National Digital Experience (INDEx) Survey
By Maura O'Shea
Posted: 7 May, 2020
INDEx Survey Report Published by National Forum Reveals Digital Lives of Both Students and Staff Who Teach in Higher Education
The Minister for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, officially unveiled data capturing the first national picture of the digital lives of almost 30,000 students and staff who teach across 32 higher education institutions today (Thursday 7 May 2020) when launching the report from the Irish National Digital Experience (INDEx) Survey. The INDEx Survey report was published by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, the national body responsible for leading and advising on the enhancement of teaching and learning in Irish higher education.
Overall, the INDEx Survey stands as an important benchmark for Irish higher education, recorded at a key moment in time. The timing of the Survey made Ireland the only country with national data representative of all students and staff who subsequently experienced the sudden shift to online teaching and learning resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The INDEx findings provide a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the digital engagement, experiences and expectations of students and staff who teach. The aim of the INDEx Survey was to highlight what makes a difference to students and staff who teach in Irish higher education, providing an evidence base to inform decision-making and future enhancement of digital teaching and learning.
A unique characteristic of the INDEx Survey was its combined focus, nationally, on both students and staff who teach. Key strengths of the INDEx Survey include its breadth in terms of the range and diversity of students and staff who participated, its reach across the sector, its consideration of digital capabilities in different domains, both individual and institutional, and its enabling of national and international benchmarking. INDEx findings reflect a higher education community that has progressed significantly with respect to engagement with digital technologies since a national roadmap for the enhancement of digital teaching and learning was first developed by the sector in 2015.
The INDEx Survey has deep roots in the policy and practice contexts of Irish higher education. The publication of the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 and the subsequent establishment of the National Forum in 2013 accelerated the momentum of teaching and learning enhancement in Ireland, with a distinct focus on building digital capacity that has carried forward to this day.
What is clear across all INDEx findings is that developing the digital capabilities of students and staff is, without question, an interdependent endeavour. Below are key findings from the Survey that was devised and implemented in a spirit of partnership and collaboration by the National Forum and a network of representatives of universities, institutes of technology, private colleges other institutions and other key stakeholders.
Key findings from the INDEx Survey Report were as follows.
Importance of digital to student learning in Irish higher education
A majority of students agreed that when digital technologies are used on their course, they understand things better, enjoy learning more, are more independent in their learning and can fit learning into their life more easily. Close to 75% of students rated the overall quality of digital teaching and learning on their course as above average, while 50% of students indicated that they would like digital technologies to be used on their course more than they are now. Over two-thirds of staff who teach also indicated that they would like digital technologies to be used in their teaching practice more than they are at present.
Supporting student and staff digital capabilities
Almost half of students said that they had regular opportunities to review and update their digital skills. Students requested more interactivity in teaching in both lectures and online, and emphasised the need for ongoing support for themselves and the staff who teach them in developing digital skills, knowledge and confidence. It is clear that the digital capabilities of students and staff who teach are interdependent and that participatory, co-creative digital pedagogies are valued by students. Indeed, students cited lecturers on their course as their primary support in using digital technology in their learning.
More than a third of staff reported that their institution regularly provided opportunities for them to develop their digital skills. Close to half of all staff who teach rated as above average the support they received from their institution to develop the digital aspects of their role. When asked to describe what their institution could do to support them in their use of technology for teaching, the most popular response from staff who teach was more and dedicated time to develop digital teaching and learning. This was reinforced by separate findings that half of all staff who teach did not feel that their institution provided them with time and support to innovate or reward/recognition when they developed the digital aspects of their role.
A new understanding of which digital tools and activities are valued
The digital tool found most useful by students and staff is the virtual learning environment (VLE). Universal, effective and consistent use of the VLE and the provision of lecture recordings were two of students’ top requests for improving their experience of digital teaching and learning. When it came to digital activities, the course-related digital activity most students found useful was polling/quizzing.
Access to wifi, devices and digitally-enabled teaching and learning spaces
Four in five students and two-thirds of staff who teach rated the quality of their institution’s digital provision (software, hardware, learning environment) as above average. To improve their experience of digital teaching and learning, students’ top suggestion was access to better, faster, more stable wifi.
Student device ownership and use for learning was high overall, but it was not universal. Eight out of ten students used a personally-owned smartphone to support their learning, with one-third of students reporting that they regularly accessed the VLE on a mobile device. While nine out of ten students owned and used a laptop, over one-quarter of students indicated that they would find it useful to have more laptops/tablets on long-term loan. These findings suggest caution in assuming that all student devices are equally suitable or reliable, particularly during the current period of institutional closures with students relying on access to personal devices, software and wifi in order to take part in learning and assessment.
Online teaching and learning
Until the recent sudden shift to remote/online learning, teaching and learning in a live online environment was largely considered the purview of those who taught or were enrolled in online programmes, or those who support them. At the time of the INDEx Survey, 70% of staff who teach had never taught in a live online environment; looking at the benchmarking data this compares with 74% in the UK. This proportion will have changed dramatically since March 2020. Many who had never taught or learned online now have done so and understanding their experiences and how their attitudes and expectations with regard to online teaching and learning have been affected will be essential in order to make sure that the evidence of the INDEx Survey and of recent experience both inform future decision-making.
Supporting the needs of all students
One in ten students reported that assistive technologies were vital to meet their learning needs. Full-time students were more likely to want digital technology to be used more for learning; postgraduate students were more likely to have created an e-portfolio; online students were less likely to access the VLE on a mobile device; mature students were more likely to use assistive technologies; and international students were more likely to regularly work online with others as part of their course. In addition, students in their institution for less than one year were more likely to have used polling/quizzing, to have had opportunities to update their digital skills, and to be involved in digital decision-making.
Digital workplace readiness
Three-quarters of all students agreed that digital skills are important for their chosen career but in contrast with this perceived need, fewer than half of all students believed that their course prepared them for the digital workplace. Detailed analysis and discussion of INDEx data within institutions, and within specific disciplines/departments, will be helpful in designing, adapting and implementing initiatives to address these gaps. Examples of findings that relate to workplace readiness and may be worth interrogating at institutional and programme level are the degree to which students collaborate online, produce work in digital formats other than Word/PowerPoint, or feel that the software used on their course is industry standard and up-to-date.
Importance of professional identity to staff engagement, experiences and expectations
The INDEx ‘staff who teach’ definition mirrors the National Forum definition, explicitly including all staff who teach and all who support teaching and learning. Lecturers were found to be close to the overall average for all staff who teach in practices such as use of polling/quizzing, creating learning materials using digital media, and teaching live online; librarians and managers are most likely to have time to innovate; learning technologists, deans and instructional designers are most likely to have an opportunity to be involved in decisions about digital services; and managers are most likely to informed about their responsibilities re students’ online safety.
While each institution may have a range of policies in place regarding digital teaching and learning, many students and staff indicated that they were unaware of these policies or the related guidelines. Only 50% of all students said their institution protected their data privacy and just over 25% said they were informed about how their personal data was stored and used, while half of staff respondents said they were informed about their responsibilities with regard to managing learner data securely. Four in ten students said their institution helped them to stay safe online, while fewer than two in ten staff said they were informed about their responsibilities with respect to ensuring students’ online safety.
INDEx findings show that almost one-third of students and nearly half of all staff who teach reported they did not have the opportunity to be involved in decisions about digital services at their institution. Several staff requested that institutions consult with staff when making decisions about new technology, tools and platforms. Reflection on these student and staff findings from an institutional perspective may help individual institutions to enhance communications and engagement with respect to current and future digital decisions. Engaging and partnering with students and staff can ensure that digital strategies, policies and initiatives will complement and support the diverse needs of students and staff across the institution.
Differences across institution types
In the main, INDEx findings were largely similar across all institution types, although there were some differences. For example, students at technological higher education institutions were most likely to agree that their course prepared them for the digital workplace; staff at THEIs were most likely to have taught live online. Students at universities gave the highest ratings for their institution’s overall digital provision; university staff were most likely to have access to lecture capture. Students at private colleges had the highest access to recorded lectures and staff who teach at private colleges were most likely to be involved in digital decisions. At other institutions, students and staff were most likely to say they had access to reliable wifi and students reported the highest access to digital resources.
Differences between countries
The INDEx dataset was benchmarked with three national datasets that were available via published findings from similar digital experience surveys conducted in the UK (for both students and teaching staff) and Australia and New Zealand (for students only). Overall, the generally similar expectations and experiences in the four countries highlight the structural and cultural similarities across these higher education sectors. Differences were observed in a few areas. For example, compared with students in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, students in Ireland were more likely to access the VLE on a mobile device and less likely to have access to recorded lectures. Students in Australia and New Zealand were more likely to have created a digital record or portfolio of their learning than students in the UK or Ireland. Compared with staff who teach in the UK, staff who teach in Ireland were more likely to use the VLE for student collaboration and have regular opportunities to develop their digital skills, but only half as likely to have access to lecture capture.
INDEx findings will inform developments emanating from other related national work in the area of higher education, such as the development of the HEA’s upcoming Digital Transformation Framework, the realisation of the potential of the Innovation and Transformation Fund and the Human Capital Initiative, and actions related to digital transformation and digital connectivity arising from the Charter for Irish Universities and the recent report of the Technological Universities Research Network. The Survey’s data must also inform the work of other relevant sectors of Government so that related infrastructure and shared services availed of by institutions, and their students and staff, can be optimised. The roll-out of the National Broadband Plan, for example, may impact on wifi in higher education institutions in the longer term.
The data produced from the INDEx Survey will now act as a base for all national and institutional policies, and broader actions towards the achievement of ambitions in the realm of digital transformation. Capable and critical engagement with digital technology remains central to the mission in higher education and is made all the more vital when considered against the impact of Covid-19. Now particularly, the sector recognises that ‘digital’ does not only relate to those with ‘digital’ in their titles and is not just an individual endeavour. Student-staff partnership and equitable, holistic approaches will help us to move towards becoming truly digitally capable institutions and a digitally capable sector – helping students and staff to thrive as they live, learn and work in a rapidly changing and increasingly digital world: building the future together.
The INDEx Survey was undertaken in autumn 2019. It was composed of two separate online survey instruments: the INDEx Student Survey, open to all students enrolled on taught programmes of study, both undergraduate and postgraduate, aged 18 and over, and the INDEx Survey of Staff Who Teach, open to all staff who teach and all who support learning and teaching, including academic, professional and technical staff. Students and staff shared their digital practices, attitudes, preferences and recommendations, as well as their experiences of digital infrastructure, digital skills and support provision, and digital environment and culture within their institutions.
The INDEx dataset is benchmarked with three national datasets available via published findings from similar digital experience surveys conducted in the UK (for both students and teaching staff) and Australia and New Zealand (for students).
A full copy of the INDEx Survey Report is available from