Reflections on ‘The student experience of e-learning in higher education: a review of the literature’

Summary of the original paper

‘The student experience of e-learning in higher education: a review of the literature’ was published in the Brookes eJournal of Learning and Teaching, Vol 1, Issue 3 in 2005. The paper arose at a time when online web-based learning was becoming established as a form of instruction alongside face to face teaching, such that these blended learning approaches were becoming a significant part of the student experience for many students (Oliver & Trigwell, 2005). Despite considerable uptake of web-based instruction in post compulsory education, evaluations of blended courses were focussed on teachers’ rather than students’ views. In 2005 we published in BeJLT a literature review that set out to identify and examine studies which had taken a student-centred approach to the evaluation of the experience of blended e-learning. We explained that the review ‘gives precedence to those studies which allow the learners themselves to identify the key features of their experience and/or speculate on what had an impact on their experiences.’

The review was not without its difficulties. The studies we reviewed revealed that learners’ experiences are highly personalised and their results can seem contradictory. Individual learners’ experiences are very individual! We set a challenge for the field to devise ways of conducting learner experience research so that recommendations could be made more confidently on the basis of their findings. With that proviso, the 2005 review attempted to make fairly crude generalisations about the benefits to students of learning online (access to course information, administration and support) and the challenges they faced (time management, dealing with the emotionality of online learning). We concluded that students needed to ‘learn to learn online’, particularly where their courses were designed less familiar ideas of social constructivist or collaborative learning. The review concluded that:

We suggest that future research should focus on eliciting the experiences, habits and strategies of effective e-learners. It is interesting to note that in education more broadly, we have a fairly good idea in teaching and learning of how an effective learner is characterised: active and strategic, skilled in co-operation and dialogue, able to develop goals and plans, and monitors own progress (Watkins et al., 2002). We are not yet sure how to characterise an effective e-learner, although this review would point us at least to questions we might want to ask them about their organisation, study habits, and strategies and conceptions of learning.

This is something that we have gone on to look at in some depth in our subsequent research. We have conducted and supported investigations into how students become effective users of technology in their learning, and what kinds of local and institutional approaches can support them.

What has happened since the paper was published?

The literature review was undertaken as part of a scoping study to provide the background and methodology for a study on learner experiences of e-learning funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC: Sharpe, Benfield, Lessner and DeCicco, 2005). The JISC went on to fund 10 studies of learner experiences on the basis of this scoping study. From 2005-2009, the scoping study team had the privilege of working alongside these research teams, in a support and synthesis role. The JISC studies developed research approaches, methods and tools for methodologies and we helped to share them in ways which could be used by any course developers, evaluators and researchers (see Oxford Brookes University, 2010a). These methods were widely adopted and in a subsequent special issue of BeJLT we published papers from learner experience studies that had used interviews, diaries and a single case study (Sharpe & Currant, 2009).

But what about our ‘effective e-learners?’ Subsequently our ideas about effective e-learners developed in very significant ways. We were interested in understanding how students become effective users of technology in their learning. We fairly quickly abandoned the terminology of ‘effective e-learner’ in favour of the broader and more nuanced conception of digital literacy. Digital literacy is a highly contextualised concept. One might be a digitally literate learner, a digitally literate researcher, a digitally literate engineer, teacher educator, historian, etc. The JISC learner experience studies we provided support for, along with other national studies of how students use technologies in their learning, showed enormous individual variation in students’ ability to use technology effectively in their learning. For example, Kennedy et al. (2010) found a diverse range of technology skills and preferences in university students, while a study by the British Library and JISC (2008, p 12) found

the information literacy of young people, has not improved with the widening access to technology: in fact, their apparent facility with computers disguises some worrying problems.

We have suggested that one way to understand these differences is in terms of learner development. We have mostly conceptualised individual differences as individual pathways through development. This may not be most accurate, but it does give course leaders some practical recommendations and it does benefit all their students. We are convinced that students need scaffolded opportunities to develop their ability to learn well in blended and online environments. So we have gone some way to characterising our effective e-learners through a developmental model, shown in Figure 1.

creative appropriation Learners are creating their own learning environments and social contexts. They are active participants in communities of knowledge building and sharing.practices Learners are making informed choices about how they use technologies for learning, alone and with others, and developing flexible strategies in response to situational needs. They are literate and critically aware users of digital resources.  skills Learners are developing technical skills and using them in a variety of learning contexts; increasing in confidence and expertise. Information skills and digital literacies are emerging through guidance and practice.   functional access Learners have access to relevant technologies, resources and services. Barriers to access such as cost and disability are actively addressed. Learners are not barred from accessing social and personal technologies without good reason. Technical support and reliable networks are available.

Figure 1: A developmental model (after Sharpe & Beetham 2009)


Finally, the review attempted a systematic approach to a literature review. We gained confidence in this approach and went on the following year to conduct a much thorough review of literature and practice in blended e-learning for the Higher Education Academy drawing on both academic publications and grey literature such as institution’s own evaluation (Sharpe, Benfield, Roberts and Francis, 2006). We have since used a range of ways of conducting reviews of literature and practice, from this systematic approach to interpretative meta ethnography (Sharpe & Savin-Baden, 2007). It continues to be important that the field of learner experience research has better ways of regularly pulling together what is known in order to direct future research and practice.

What impact did the paper have?

The 2005 literature review played a part in establishing the need for a field of ‘learner experience research’. One indicator of this impact is citations – the review currently has 75 citations showing on Google Scholar. This review, combined with useable tools and frameworks arising from the subsequent JISC studies, encouraged others to conduct their own, often institutional, learner experience research.

Institutional research is important because of its potential to quickly make changes to institutional practices. The JISC-funded Supporting Learners in a  Digital Age project led by Oxford Brookes University focused on this institutional role in developing digitally literate students (Oxford Brookes University, 2010b). We found a range of institutional interventions and practices that could be considered as playing a powerful role in developing learners’ digital literacies (Benfield & Sharpe, 2011). We categorised them into five broad types:

  1. Preparing students for their experience of learning with technology
  2. Enabling learners to use their own devices and services
  3. Reconfiguring campus spaces for social learning
  4. Listening to learner voices
  5. A strategic emphasis on course design for blended learning

Subsequently we exemplified these categories and showed how they relate to the developmental model in Figure 1 (Sharpe & Benfield, 2012). For example, institutional induction processes are important in helping support functional access within the developmental model. Skills development requires embedding within the curriculum, and the institutions that showed some success in this were doing so through the specification of graduate attributes. A broad range of learning activities involving the use of technology and reconfiguring campus spaces to support new, technology-enhanced pedagogies contributes to level three of the model, personal practices, while the top level, creative appropriation, is best supported with exploratory, experimental curricula. We concluded overall (Sharpe & Benfield 2012, p 15) that

Learners are clear that most of their technology use for learning is defined by the courses and tutors. The powerful influence of context means that teachers and their institutions need to take the lead in developing their learners.

A second direction in which our work around developing digitally literate learners took shape emerged in the JISC-funded InStePP project (Oxford Brookes University, 2012). InStePP was a project aiming to develop the digital literacies of staff and students at the university by capitalising on a valuable resource within all universities: a significant proportion of students who are confident, agile users of digital technology. The alert reader will recognise this description as that used in the Oxford Brookes University definition of digital literacy in its Strategy for Enhancing the Student Experience (Oxford Brookes University, 2010c).

The InStePP project, in which students volunteered to work on digital literacy commissions in partnership with staff, showed (Benfield & Pavlakou, 2013):

Universities and further education institutions have much to gain from students being actively engaged in helping transform the digital learning landscape. InStePP was founded on the premise that students can be key change agents for enhancing digital literacy if tech-savvy, or digitally literate, students can be encouraged to share their expertise. Our data shows that students in partnership with staff can motivate staff to adopt new digital learning and teaching practices. It indicates that the impact on practice is potentially broader than just the use of technology. Student partners have helped staff hear the student voice, gain insights into learners’ perspectives, and stimulated them to think differently about learner needs than they did before.


The literature review published in BeJLT in 2005 was the start of a productive 10 year relationship with the JISC. What started as a curiosity to uncover and understand experiences learners’ of technology has evolved into a pressing argument for teachers and institutions to support learners to develop the access, skills and practices they need in order to be able to study successfully in a digital age. We have initiated a variety of local and institutional practices which support learner development and improved our methods for investigating the digital practices of students. In this endeavour we have had the privilege of working with a number of valued colleagues including Ellen Lessner and Eta DeCicco (Scoping study), Helen Beetham (developmental model), Shalni Gulati and Judy Hardy (SLiDA), and Richard Francis (InstePP).

By 2008, there were sufficient numbers of people engaged with learner experience research that we were able to work with the Universities of Greenwich and Bradford to create a special interest group for this community – ELESIG – initially funded by the Higher Education Academy. This vibrant community currently has over 1700 members from 14 different countries, and organises a variety of events including webinars, symposia and masterclasses. ELESIG activities continue to build capacity for undertaking and using learner experience research in further and higher education.

There continues to be a need to monitor learners’ experiences in this fast moving changing technological context. Learner experience research continues to be an important part of understanding learners’ experiences in Australian distance education (e.g. Brown et al, 2013), and global MOOCs (Veletsianos, 2013). More fundamentally, for those of us working in the area of technology enhanced learning, earner experience research has helped to shift our understanding of our responsibilities from provision of technology to a duty to develop students’ digital literacies.


Benfield, G. and Pavlakou, M. (2013) InStePP Final Evaluation Report, Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development. [Online] from

Benfield, G. and Sharpe, R. (2011) Supporting learners in a digital age: synthesis report. Final report of the JISC SLiDA project.   [Online] Retrieved 26 April, 2012, from

British Library and JISC (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, Ciber report  [Online] Retrieved 8 July, 2008, from

Brown, M., Keppell, M., Hughes, H., Hard, N., Shillington, S., & L, S. (2013). In their own words: experiences of first-time distance learners. In R. James (Ed.), dehub Innovation in distance education, University of New England, Australia.

Kennedy, G., Judd, T., Dalgarno, B. and Waycott, J. (2010) Beyond natives and immigrants: exploring types of net generation students, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 26(5) pp. 332-343.

Oliver, M. & Trigwell, K. (2005) Can blended learning by redeemed? E-learning, 2(1).

Oxford Brookes University (2010a) Learner Experiences of E-learning. Retrieved on 6 April 2014 from

Oxford Brookes University (2010b) SLiDA Case studies. Retrieved on 6 April 2014 from

Oxford Brookes University (2010b) Strategy for Enhancing the Student Experience 2010-2015.   [Online] Retrieved 26 April, 2012, from

Oxford Brookes University (2012) Welcome to InstePP. Retrieved on 6 April 2014 from

Sharpe, R. and Beetham, H. (2009) Responding to learners. Keynote at JISC Online Conference, November 2009.

Sharpe, R. and Benfield, G. (2012) Institutional strategies for supporting learners in a digital age, Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences (ELiSS) 4 (2).

Sharpe, R. and Currant, B. (2009) Editorial: Making meaning from evaluations of learners’ experiences of e–learning, Brookes eJournal of Learning and Teaching, 2(4).

Sharpe, R., Benfield, G., Lessner, E., and DeCicco, E. (2005) Final Report: Scoping Study for the Pedagogy strand of the JISC e-Learning Programme. Retrieved on 6 April 2014 from

Sharpe, R., Benfield, G., Roberts, G. and Francis, R. (2006) The undergraduate experience of blended e-learning: a review of UK literature and practice undertaken for the Higher Education Academy. Retrieved on 6 April 2014 from

Sharpe, R. and Savin-Baden, M. (2007) Learning to Learn through Supported Enquiry. A literature review conducted for the L2L through supported enquiry FDTL5 project. Retrieved on 6 April 2014 from

Veletsianos, G. (2013). Learner Experiences with MOOCs and Open Online Learning. Hybrid Pedagogy. Retrieved from

Watkins, C., Carnell, E., Lodge, C., Wagner, P. and Whalley, C. (2002) Effective Learning, Research Matters No. 17, Bulletin of the National School Improvement Network.


Rhona Sharpe

Professor Rhona Sharpe is Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development at Oxford Brookes University. Her interests are around developing and tutoring online courses, developing learners for a digital age, and  pedagogic research. Rhona is one of the co-founders of ELESIG (Evaluation of Learners' Experiences of e-learning Special Interest Group), a Senior Fellow of the Staff and Educational Development Association, a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a National Teaching Fellow. She is Editor of the Brookes eJournal for Learning and Teaching.

Greg Benfield

Greg is a Senior Lecturer/Educational Developer (Learning Technologies) in the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD) at Oxford Brookes University, UK. His work focuses on supporting technology-enriched learning and he teaches on the Postgraduate Certificate of Teaching in Higher Education. As well as his work at Brookes he delivers national workshops on Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) and assessment and has been involved in a range of national JISC and Higher Education Academy e-learning projects. He pioneered and leads the Course Design Intensive (CDI) approach to curriculum development and renewal at Brookes and in other UK universities. His PhD is in educational research and his research interests are:

  • Learner Experiences of e-Learning
  • Communication and collaboration in technology-rich HE environments
  • TEL course design
  • Computer aided assessment

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