The coronavirus pandemic has generated changes in the teaching-learning process in higher education institutions and has influenced the interaction between teachers and students. As a consequence of the pandemic, universities were constrained to carrying out their activity with students exclusively online [1
]. In this regard, many governments took measures in order to avoid spreading the virus and to ensure the continuity of the educational process, and universities worldwide adopted online learning [2
While in general, internet-based learning is considered an option, an alternative to traditional learning [3
], during the Coronavirus pandemic it became an essential element for maintaining the activity of schools and universities. This paradigm shift could generate changes in students’ perception of this way of teaching and their perception might be different from the one found in studies previous to the pandemic. Thus, through this paper, we tried to capture the existence of such changes.
Previous studies show that E-learning offers many benefits for students because this type of learning involves student-centeredness, it is more flexible [4
], and it can also improve interaction with students by providing asynchronous and synchronous tools such as e-mail, forums, chats, videoconferences [5
]. Furthermore, internet technologies facilitate the distribution of content at the same time, to a large number of users; E-learning platforms offer many advantages to learners such as control over the content, control over the time spent learning, and thus the process can be adapted according to the learner needs and objectives of learning [7
]. This might contribute to better communication with the students and in spite of some inherent challenges brought by this time of crisis, E-learning might enhance the learning process for students.
However, when using E-learning platforms there are also some elements that might be considered obstacles in students’ process of learning, such as decreased motivation in students, delayed feedback or help due to the fact that teachers are not always available at the time students may need help while learning, or feelings of isolation due to lack of physical presence of classmates [8
]. Nonetheless, these obstacles can be overcome with the help of teachers who should adapt their teaching strategies to the needs of students. In order to do so, experience and knowledge about teaching in the online environment are necessary. Thus, we believe that these challenges and disadvantages could be more prominent while the educational process takes place exclusively online. This might happen due to the lack of teachers’ experience in using E-learning and due to the short time in which they had to adapt their teaching style to the new conditions. Relevant in this way are the results of a study conducted by School Education Gateway at the beginning of the pandemic which showed that 66.9% of respondents affirmed that they used online platforms for teaching for the first time [9
]. Thus, it can be inferred that students and teachers were not ready for an entirely online experience.
Therefore, both university members and students came across many challenges. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development mentioned that some of the challenges universities have to face were: keeping an equilibrium between online courses, that could affect students health, them spending many hours in front of a screen, and non-digital activities, analyzing and focusing on student’s emotional health—providing them with support throughout the process of learning, taking into account the fact that not all students have access to the internet, and managing and monitoring their access to devices in order to effectively collaborate with them [10
]. Furthermore, universities also struggle with keeping the content of the course consistent and relevant, with communicating clearly with the academic community, and also with acquiring and recruiting students [5
]. On the other hand, students also had to face challenges and a study focusing on students’ perspective on E-learning identified that among the main challenges that students encountered were accessibility, connectivity, lack of appropriate devices, social issues represented by the lack of communication and interaction with teachers and peers [11
Taking into account the aspects mentioned above we believe that the transition to exclusive E-learning can highly affect the educational process and student’s perception about the use of the online environment in the process of teaching and learning, and these ideas stand at the basis of our research. We considered it important, relevant, and necessary to analyze whether students have adapted to E-learning and whether they are satisfied rather than dissatisfied with this exclusive online experience.
The aim of the paper is to identify the student’s perspective on the E-learning experience during the Coronavirus pandemic in order to improve and strengthen the E-learning system. In other words, our study examines the way the process of learning was affected during this time of crisis and investigates the student’s view on the use of E-learning platforms and how these technologies influenced their understanding and assimilation of information. Furthermore, we were also interested in identifying the main difficulties that students encountered while learning online, and in which context they would like these platforms to be further used by universities.
Thus, our research can contribute to the development of the E-learning process, for it provides information on the usefulness of certain methods used in order to deliver the courses, the time spent on completing tasks and projects, the content of the course, and also student’s grievances, recommendations and preferences for teaching techniques.
3. Materials and Methods
3.1. Objectives and Research Questions
Most of the studies previously mentioned highlight a number of aspects related to the experience of students and teachers in the context in which online learning and implicitly, E-learning platforms were used as complementary tools to the traditional learning process. However, there are only a few studies that mention the exclusive use of E-learning platforms, as it happened during the pandemic when universities were forced to use it and implement it as a main tool in the educational process. This study aims to illustrate students’ perceptions regarding exclusively online learning through the E-learning platforms, in one of the countries that had little experience in this process before the pandemic.
Previous to the pandemic, in the Romanian higher education system, the use of E-learning platforms was scarce: few teachers were using the platform, and they were mainly using its basic functions such as uploading course material. The pandemic surprised most of the teachers but also students, who were very unfamiliar with online learning platforms, by forcing them to move, in a very short time, from traditional learning to exclusively online learning.
Therefore, we conducted an online questionnaire in order to examine students’ perceptions regarding the ability of universities to provide knowledge in the context of exclusively online learning and to examine their attitude towards exclusively online learning.
In this study, the following research questions were addressed:
What is the perception of students about the way universities managed to provide knowledge in the context of exclusively online learning?
What is the perception of students about the ability to learn and assimilate information in the context of exclusively online learning?
What is the perception of students about the use of E-learning platform in the process of exclusively online learning?
The population for the study was selected in a non-probabilistic way and was comprised of 762 students from two of the most important universities in Romania: Transilvania University of Brasov and West University of Timisoara. The sample consists of 405 participants from Transilvania University of Brasov and 357 participants from West University of Timisoara. The majority of respondents are female, mostly up to 22 years old, from urban areas, from Bachelor Primary Education programs (Table 1
). However, 172 (22.6%) of the students were male and 590 female (77.4%), 274 (36%) were from a rural area, 488 (64%) from an urban area, and 685 (89.9%) were in the Bachelor Education programs and the others, 77 (10.1%) were in the Master Education programs.
3.3. Data Collection Method
Data was collected online. The questionnaire was sent as a link on the Facebook pages of the two universities through the free application Google Forms, during the second semester of the 2019–2020 academic year. The research received the approval of the Ethics Commission in social research from Transilvania University of Brasov, Romania. The participants in the study received information at the beginning of the questionnaire about the purpose of the survey and the informed consent. Checking a specific box, they approved the participation to the study. The e-mail addresses were not collected in order to respect anonymity and confidentiality. The average time needed to answer the questionnaire was 15 min.
3.4. The Research Instrument
For data collection, a non-standardized questionnaire was used. The questionnaire included items corresponding to the three research questions. For the first research question, the following items were included: frequency of technical problems in online learning (4 items related to the connection to the platform such as sound clarity, delayed message viewing, loss of signal during the audio/video conference), (Likert scale 5 = very frequently, 1 = did not use), frequency of using a set of 11 tools related to the E-learning platform (5-point Likert scale, where 1 = did not use, 5 = very frequently), compliance with the schedule (yes/no), balanced teaching style (more theory, less theory, balanced theory and practical tasks), assigning tasks to students compared to face-to-face learning (they have more free time, they have the same amount of tree time, they have less free time), obstacles encountered in the E-learning process (open question).
For the second research question the following items were used: opinion towards the use of the online environment for learning (5-point Likert scale, where 1 = to a very small extent, 5 = to a very great extent), preference for interaction with teachers during courses/seminars (microphone, chat), assimilation of information and online learning compared to face to face learning: perceived difficulty regarding the presentation of the seminar projects online (more difficult, the same dificulty, less difficult), proccessing information (more difficult, the same difficulty, less difficult), the type of course that facilitates information processing (audio, video, chat/forum), opinion towards online learning (5-point Likert scale, where 1 = not at all satisfied, 5 = very satisfied), preference for future learning in higher education (online, face to face, a combination between online and offline−hybrid).
For the third question of the research the following items were used: previous use of the E-learning platform (yes/no), frequency of use of 11 tools specific to the E-learning platform (5-point Likert scale, where 1 = did not use, 5 = very frequently), perception about the usefulness of the 11 tools in the process of learning (5-point Likert scale, where 1 = not at all useful, 5 = very useful), preference for the future use of various platforms.
The final part of the questionnaire contained a series of socio-demographic variables (gender, background, degree level: Bachelor/Master, field of study). This information was used only for the purpose of the descriptive analysis. The questionnaire and main items can be found in Table A1
3.5. Data Analysis
The data were analyzed using IBM SPSS Statistics (version 23). Answers to the open items were analyzed qualitatively, by recoding them into categories which describe the basic conditions for successful online learning (technical conditions, teachers’ and students’ technical skills, teaching in the online environment according to the teaching rules in the offline environment, teaching style, interaction with students/teachers). For the variables that were complexly measured, through several indicators (technical issues with the Platform, use of a large number of tools provided by the E-learning platform, usefulness of the tools provided by the E-learning platform) indexes [63
] were made in order to synthetically measure the information from those indicators. For data analysis, descriptive statistics were made (percentages, mean, and standard deviation). Comparisons were made depending on the level of degree (Bachelor/Master) with the help of the Independent Samples t
-Test and Chi square. In order to identify the correlation between students’ perception about the use of the online environment in the teaching process and satisfaction towards learning in the online environment, the Spearman correlation coefficient was made. We considered a comparison between the levels of degree (Bachelor/Master) important because in Romania the profiles of the two categories of students are different. Master students are mainly students that are already employed, some of them with families, and for them it is harder to be present during the courses even if the courses are held in the evening after their work shift has ended. We thought that, compared to Bachelor students, Master students could be fonder of E-learning because with E-learning it is easier for them to attend courses. In addition, because they have reached a more mature age, they have more capacity to assimilate information than Bachelor students.
In the context of the crisis created by the Coronavirus pandemic we assisted in two major changes in the Romanian higher education system: digitalization and the transition to a student centered E-learning process, changes that took place in a relatively short period of time.
With the digitalization, professors were forced to switch to a more student centered type of teaching, since E-learning platforms favor this type of teaching/learning [25
]. Previous studies reveal that online learning platforms bring benefits for students when they are used as complementary tools for the traditional educational process [7
]. Furthermore, most of the studies mentioned show that students generally have positive attitudes towards online learning [33
], even though they sometimes encountered technical issues and consider that they process information better in the traditional courses [36
]. In addition, other studies reveal multiple benefits of online learning such as better results in assimilating information [49
], adapting courses to students’ needs [22
], flexibility [50
], student centeredness [55
], and removing the barriers of space and time, things that motivate students to join in on conversations and exchange opinions [52
The quality of the educational process in the online environment depends on multiple factors, among which are: the level of training that teachers have in using technology, their teaching style, interaction with students, strategies used to capture students’ attention, encouraging contact between students and faculty, collaborative learning, quick feedback, active learning, task time−encouraging students to allocate more time for completing tasks, high expectations–the teacher should communicate their expectations in order to encourage and motivate students, diversified learning, and technology application [26
Taking into consideration these aspects, we analyzed the way in which teachers from two Romanian higher education institutions managed to provide knowledge during the Coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, we focused our paper on analyzing students’ perception about their experience during exclusively online learning, and what impact this type of learning had on their ability to learn and process information.
The present study shows that when learning exclusively online, some of the benefits and advantages previously mentioned diminish in value and disadvantages become more prominent. Students who responded to our questionnaire believe that exclusively online learning does not have beneficial effects on assimilating and processing information, that it is more difficult to study and be focused online, and that teaching is also harder. Furthermore, students also consider that presenting seminar projects is harder online, them not having the courage to speak up out of fear of being mocked or ridiculized. It is also very interesting that even though students used to actively participate in the offline seminar activities, online, very few have the courage to express their opinions or to write on the forum, because they feel more exposed.
In regard to the disadvantages of online learning, our study is in line with other studies [54
]. Students easily get distracted and lose focus due to the fact that teachers do not have well implemented strategies in order to keep them focused, but also because of their lack of experience with this type of learning. In addition to these aspects, environmental disruptors such as the noise made by family members or neighbours and lack of adequate learning space also influence the amount of time for which students can concentrate while learning online. Another disadvantage that our study revealed is isolation. Students feel isolated because of the lack of interaction, especially with teachers, because they spend more time inside, in front of the computer, and because of the pandemic, which forced people to socially distance themselves from other people.
Our study is also in line with other studies [37
] which suggest that students consider that the online educational process has less value than the traditional process, them preferring the use of E-learning platforms in combination with traditional, face-to-face teaching/learning. Furthermore, students believe the process of learning and assimilating information is poor in the online environment and this could result in poorer learning outcomes. Our study shows that it is possible for online learning to affect students’ performance because respondents reported poor assimilation of information, especially when attending more difficult courses in which professors did not have well adapted methods of teaching. Furthermore, our research shows that universities were not ready to implement exclusively online teaching and learning, and this finding is consistent with the results of other studies [61
], while other studies found that poor interaction with teachers was one of the main issues stated by students [9
In the context of the crisis generated by the pandemic, the hierarchy of the reasons why students are reluctant to learn online is changing. Technical problems were the problems most frequently reported, them having a major role in decreasing students’ motivation. Teachers’ lack of technical skills is another important reason and this finding confirms the results of other studies conducted during the crisis [7
]. The maladjustment of the teaching style to the online environment is the next reason, and on the last point, students mentioned poor commmunication and interaction with teachers. These last two reasons were generated on the one hand by the lack of technical skills, and on the other hand by the resilience to change and the lack of flexibility of some teachers to adapt in order to adequately provide knowledge in the online environment.
All these elements were reflected in students’ perception about the quality of the online educational process, the overall score scale showing modest results: an average level of satisfaction.
Although there are some studies that indicate a positive attitude of students towards exclusively online learning during the crisis [58
], the results of our research are consistent with recent studies conducted on students in Eastern Europe [64
], which confirm a negative attitude of students towards online learning. However, the medium scores of the overall score scale regarding satisfaction towards exclusively online learning show that, in spite of all problems encountered, students, especially Master students, had the ability to relate these problems to the context of the pandemic when both teachers and students were forced to deal with a situation they hadn’t faced before. Thus, some teachers did try to learn, find solutions, offer support for students and adapt their teaching style to the new conditions, things that some students appreciated despite the existing technical difficulties.
Hence, considering the short period of time in which teachers had to adapt to the new teaching conditions, most of them managed to cope successfully with the challenges, but there is still room for improvement. In this regard, our findings reveal that the educational process was teacher-centered rather than student-centered, and when there had been an attempt to adopt a more student-centered process, students felt too much pressure due to the formidable number of tasks they were required to solve. A student-focused educational process involves assigning more responsibilities to students and more tasks, but unfortunately, because students were not accustomed to this type of learning they felt pressured, thus being more prone to develop negative attitudes towards online teaching and learning. Teachers used diverse tools while delivering courses online in order to make the course more attractive, but sometimes feedback from students was delayed, tasks were not concise, and teachers often failed to express clearly their expectations. The reason why the online educational process encountered so many issues is represented by the fact that the traditional way in which teachers used to deliver the practical part of the course was no longer suitable for the online environment. Thus, because they did not manage to rapidly adapt and come up with solutions, teachers created confusion and uncertainty among students.
Another important aspect that must be discussed is the interaction between students and teachers. According to our findings, students were affected by the lack of interaction with both teachers and peers. The E-learning platforms were not able to support video-conferences, except occassionally, in small groups and at special hours when the server was not overcrowded. However, for students, video-conferences were important because they could substitute the physical interaction with their teachers and colleagues. Some teachers managed to replace face to face interaction by assigning team projects, and some of them even used collaborative teaching tools.
When it comes to students’ attitude towards the use of the E-learning platform, generally students consider the platform a useful tool for online teaching and learning. Still, due to the technical issues generated not necessarily by the platform, but by the servers of the universities that were hosting it, students would rather use other platforms. Students prefer platforms that allow multiple users to video communicate for longer periods of time, which do not generate so many technical problems, thus facilitating interaction between them and their teachers.
According to the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) [28
], the intention to use E-learning platforms is influenced by the perceived ease of use of the tools provided by the platforms and by the perceived usefulness of those tools. In this context, our findings reveal that students did not encounter difficulties while using the tools offered by the E-learning platform, them being intuitive and easy to manage. Even though the assessed instruments gained a high overall score scale regarding their usefulness in the learning process, only 28% of students would prefer to use these platforms, due to the technical issues it generated (issues such as signal loss, unclear sound, delayed viewing of the messages, that appeared because of the servers that were hosting it, because of the large number of students that were connected). In this regard, it is recommended for universities to develop strategies in order to solve these problems, because if such issues continue to persist, students may no longer be motivated to participate in the educational process.
Therefore, the results of our research revealed that just the perceived ease of use and perceived usefulness are not enough in order to determine students to use E-learning platforms, as other studies suggest [28
]. Our results suggest that the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) could be improved by taking into account some external factors such as technical conditions offered by the universities, students’ technical conditions, teachers’ teaching style, teachers’ technical skills, and the interaction between students and teachers through the platform. If the TAM model can explain the intention to use E-learning platforms in the context in which the platform is used as a complementary tool for the traditional educational process, an improved version of the model could explain the intention to use it in the context of exclusively online learning.
The results and findings of our study lead to two categories of implications: practical and theoretical implications. On a practical level, a series of useful recommendations for teachers can be outlined in order for them to succeed in increasing the quality of the educational process in the online environment.
The study offers a perspective regarding the way the educational process took place in a period of sudden and multiple changes in the Romanian higher education system. Thus, it is possible that after a longer period of adaptation and familiarization of students and teachers with the online environment, the quality of the educational process will improve, and that students’ perception regarding online learning to be more positive and in line with other studies that we previously mentioned in this paper.
However, in order for the Romanian education system to properly and successfully adapt to online teaching and learning, a series of actions that can stimulate and facilitate its adaptation to this new type of teaching must be taken. In this regard, universities could develop training sessions for teachers or could develop programs whose role would be to stimulate teachers’ performance and implicitly the quality of the educational process.
Technical issues are still the issues most difficult to solve, due to the capacity of the servers owned by universities. Surely, universities have made efforts in order to solve thesee problems and improve the way the E-learning platforms work. Still, students’ technical problems remain poor internet connections, signal loss, lack of adequate digital devices, especially for students living in rural areas or students from families with low incomes. Universities could create programs to meet these types of needs and thus facilitate the learning process for students who find themselves in these situations.
In the Romanian higher education system, as well as in other systems [61
], there is a need for concrete actions in order to improve and optimize the process of online teaching and learning, such as: improving teachers’ technical skills, developing training programs meant to help teachers remodel and adapt their teaching style and the way they interact with students, to the online environment. The literature [64
] provides some suggestions on how to adapt the educational process to the online environment, but the adjustments should be made according to the macro context at the level of each country, according to the profile and study field of the students.
From our point of view, the main challenges that the higher education system in Romania has to face today are: teachers’ resilience to change and changing students’ perception towards online learning. Training programs for teachers need to be developed in order to: help them adapt to the changes, to help them understand that the future of education in higher education systems involves the online environment, that it is unlikely that the system will return to how it was before the pandemic, and that online teaching is a new way to interact with students.
Teachers who are open minded, flexible and interested in developing themselves became self-taught and tried to improve their teaching skills. However, a certain segment of teachers still manifests resilience towards learning how to use new tools and they use, during the courses, only the basic functions of the E-learning platform. It is also important to mention that in the higher education system, it is more difficult for teachers to acknowledge that they do not know how to use certain tools provided by the platforms, which is why they do not ask for support in this regard. Still, only technical skills are not enough, teachers also have to adapt their methods of teaching to the online environment.
Regarding processing information while online learning, the results of the research show that for better assimilation of information it is necessary to use the videoconference function during courses, to balance the number of theory and practical tasks, and to assign students a proper number of practical tasks in order for them to avoid spending too many hours in front of the computer. It would be advisable for the tasks to involve teamwork to compensate for the lack of interaction in the online environment. Thus, this implies creativity in thinking and designing tasks that stimulate collaborative learning, but it also involves the need for technical skills in order to create and implement programs meant to improve interaction between students. Furthermore, it is necessary for teachers to quickly provide feedback on the tasks solved by students, to offer them support, to diversify the tasks offered to them, to use various teaching tools, to provide information in multiple ways (audio, video, text), and to find strategies to spark their interest and keep them focused during courses.
Another challenge would be to succeed in changing the way teachers interact and communicate with students. Students’ lack of active learning, critical thinking skills, their lack of ability to debate and express their opinion, actions that the educational system did not foster or develop, are now becoming prominent in the higher education system in the process of online learning. If during face-to-face courses teachers still managed to find methods to encourage students to develop such skills, in the online environment it seems very difficult for teachers to find new methods. Students have strategies through which they avoid activities that require critical thinking, debate or that simply require them to state their opinion, and teachers have little control over them (the microphone is not working, the connection is bad, I cannot talk because I am also at work, or because there are other people in the room). We are not stating that such situations are not real, we simply highlight the fact that usually, students use them as excuses to avoid active participation in courses.
It is of utmost importance that teachers are available and open to students’ needs in order to increase their engagement and involvement in the educational process (which is lower in the online environment). When students encounter technical difficulties, teachers should come up with solutions so that students could have access to the information provided during courses (recording and posting the course on the platform, offering supplementary materials), and if solutions can not be found, the least teachers could do is to be understanding and to not sanction students due to this type of issues. Answers like this: “there is nothing I can help you” or “it is your problem” only lower their motivation and increase students’ frustration and the risk of dropping out.
Another implication of our findings can be found on a theoretical level. Starting from the conclusions of the studies conducted previous to the pandemic, the Technology Acceptance Model regarding the intention to use E-learning platforms could be developed and improved. The model could also include a series of external factors and could even be tested in the context of exclusively online teaching and learning.