It is widely reported that student engagement with online learning in university is inconsistent and is associated with complex factors.1 This study was conceptualised and planned to support progress to online learning approaches in a nursing program at a university in Australia. Locally, it was evident from data extracted from formal course evaluations (both quantitative and qualitative), and from online learning platform analytics, that nursing students struggled to engage with content delivered in online environments. Subjects delivered via online platforms were consistently ranked noticeably lower than subjects delivered face to face. These local observations are well supported in the literature, which suggests students find online learning ‘boring’ and disengaging and they lack motivation to learn.2 Additionally, nursing students are considered to have predominantly divergent learning styles, that is, they are learners who learn through experience and reflection.3,4
While an extensive review of the literature highlighted multi-faceted issues associated with providing online learning, an important factor, regardless of learning styles that impacts effective online learning is related to students’ self-regulated learning skills.5,6 For this reason, the study described focused on identifying the self-regulated learning skills held by nursing students at a large university.
Data were collected in February 2020, just prior to the proclamation that the novel coronavirus had reached pandemic proportions, and before the implementation of online teaching and learning strategies designed in reaction to the pandemic, or as Pace, Pettit, and Barker7 suggest, the ‘crisis learning strategies’. The timing of the data collection was particularly meaningful, as it provided a baseline from which to understand the self-regulated learning skills of the students who had been thrust into this environment.
Prior to the emergence of the novel coronavirus, universities were already in the process of further developing opportunities for students to engage with online learning. However, since the devastating effects of the coronavirus have become apparent, universities have moved the majority of learning into online environments in order to continue to deliver education, and support students to progress through their programs of study.8 However, this has been a significant change for many students, in that while teaching has continued, students may not be equipped with appropriate skills to self-regulate their learning.9
Much of the recent literature addressing online learning focuses on process issues. For example, Carey10 suggests that the main issue is not whether online learning can provide quality education, but whether universities can adopt large scale online learning. Similarly, Ligouri and Winkler11 highlight the issue of distance and scale in mass delivery of online learning. There is also literature that highlights issues such as accessibility (including affordability), and issues related to learning pedagogy.12
The adoption of online learning opportunities effectively assumes students have a skill set for learning in these environments. However, it is recognised that students may not have appropriate skill sets, nor are they prepared, to engage with learning in online environments.8 As noted earlier, nursing students’ preferred learning styles are associated with experience and reflection. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest more broadly that much of current teaching at university still reflects a top down approach, whereby the ‘expert’ academic delivers content to students who will hopefully absorb and learn from the academic in a face to face environment.13 To engage nursing students in effective on-line learning environments requires a cultural shift in how curriculum is designed and delivered, and how students are prepared to engage in this type of learning environment. It is not clear how the ‘crisis learning strategies’ that emerged from managing the pandemic response will support this cultural shift without data on students’ current self-regulated learning skills. 7
Within universities there remain concerns among academic staff about students’ attitudes and satisfaction with online learning, students’ achievement of learning outcomes, potential changes in interactions between academic staff and students, and with academic staff satisfaction of teaching in online environments.14 Indeed, Webb et al15 report barriers to adoption of online learning related to academic staff not having time to develop skills, or poor recognition of the time it takes to develop skills, and students who lack literacy in online learning. Other concerns centre round evidence of the effectiveness of online approaches to learning.16
It should be noted however, that there is emerging evidence to suggest that learning outcomes for students who engage in online learning are as good, if not better, than with traditional approaches. Several authors report positive outcomes which may include improved test results and lower dropout rates, improved engagement with content and a strong sense of academic community.17 There is further evidence to support the development of effective online learning opportunities regarding student satisfaction in terms of engagement, active and deeper learning and in critical thinking.13,17−19 This is turn develops metacognition, and suggests better academic outcomes.20
Despite the emerging evidence that students can embrace online learning, the weight of evidence confirms they prefer high levels of interaction with teaching staff, and face to face learning is considered important.6 McGarry et al21 argue that it is critical that learning is designed to promote socialisation, rapport building and relationship maintenance. A compounding issue is that many learners may not be equipped with skills to learn in online environments and struggle with technology, which hinders their learning.22 This is particularly important for future registered nurses who are required to adopt lifelong learning approaches for continued professional development to maintain capability to practice.23
Developing online learning opportunities has been challenging and remains challenging for nursing academics. The university teaching and learning environment is underpinned by tenets of andragogy as a way of understanding how students, as adults, learn. Andragogical approaches to teaching shift the focus from education being teacher-focussed, to education that is learner-focussed.24 Knowles25 identifies six principles that underpin andragogical approaches to teaching. The principles include recognising adult learners as having an intrinsic motivation and readiness to learn, recognising the significance of their prior experience to their learning, acknowledging orientation to learning is through using problem-solving approaches, and that adults learn best when they are self-directed in their learning and value the relevance of the learning experiences.26 Relating these skills to online learning environments, Lawanto et al14 suggest that a critical skill for learners is self-regulated learning (SRL).
SRL is characterised by awareness of thinking (metacognition), use of strategies to enact learning, and motivation to learn, and reflects the characteristics of adult learning.27
SRL sits in parallel with and overlaps concepts of self-directed learning (SDL), which is where the learner takes initiative to manage their own learning.25 In this study we use the term SRL. The self-regulated learner is motivated and self-directed, has a strong internal locus of control, and strong communication and skills in technology. Importantly, self-regulated learners are prepared to embark on challenges and develop deeper understanding of content.28 However, there is significant evidence to suggest that in university environments many students remain comfortable with traditional, passive methods of learning, and do not demonstrate adult learning characteristics or skills.29
This study will identify strategies to enhance self-regulation, monitoring performance and providing feedback and developing methods of meaningful engagement between staff and students using technology.30