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Student-centred learning in higher education in times of Covid-19: A critical analysis

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Published onMar 07, 2022
Student-centred learning in higher education in times of Covid-19: A critical analysis


Student-centred learning is a pedagogical concept that has impregnated many of the discourses about teaching and learning in the last 10 years, as opposed to teacher-centred learning, and is considered core in higher education for adequately preparing lifelong learners. During the Covid-19 outbreak, teaching and learning in traditional higher education institutions shifted from face-to-face classes to online ones, and some educators tried innovative ways to deliver a student-driven education in these settings. Although there is an extensive literature on student-centred learning and online learning, the former has not been so far explored during the particular situation of emergency remote teaching due to Covid-19. Considering the relevance of student-centred learning for lifelong learning in a world in constant transformation, in this study I critically analyse the application of student-centred approaches in this context through a systematic literature review. Nine publications were selected according to their focus on and interest upon a student-centred learning design of a university course during Covid-19 pandemic. The “Own it, Learn it and Share it” framework to enhance student engagement in student-centred learning was used as the conceptual framework to guide the critical analysis. The critical analysis shows that the problem-based learning approach was the most popular during this period, and that most of the described designs include elements for supporting learning such as prompting and modelling, the provision/use of tools and resources, and progress monitoring (Learn it), as well as for assisting sharing in terms of creating artifacts (Share it). However, fewer elements of the course designs addressed specifically some aspects to support learning ownership (Own it) such as goal setting, and to encourage sharing through Web 2.0 publications (Share it). The conclusions reflect also on aspects missing in the framework, such as the emotional aspects, emphasized due to the pandemic situation, and the specific condition of student-centred learning derived from group work, and result in recommendations for student-centred learning in higher education beyond Covid-19.

Keywords: student-centred learning; higher education; Covid-19; course design; critical analysis; systematic review

Part of the Special Issue Technology and educational ‘pivoting’ in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic

1. Introduction

The pedagogical concept of student-centred learning (SCL), as well as the paradigm shift from teacher-centred learning to SCL, has been often present in reports, speeches, studies and reflections, especially in the context of European Higher Education Area (EHEA) reforms, where SCL gained a central stage and was identified as a higher education priority area in 2015 (Dakovic & Zhang, 2020; European Students’ Union, 2010; Hoidn, 2016; Sursock, 2015). SCL focuses on the development of students’ competencies and on the processes of acquisition and construction of knowledge, as well as on the permanent and active attitude towards learning (Esteve & Gisbert, 2011). Within a world in constant transformation, higher education institutions’ commitment should be to prepare “responsible, critical citizens who can develop personally and professionally and meet the contemporary needs of society”, which includes preparing lifelong learners (Global University Network for Innovation, 2021, p. 14). Therefore, SCL should be considered as core in higher education, being innovative changes a requirement to introduce it (Salinas, 2004).

SCL has been discussed extensively in the educational technology field, considering that digital technologies are a key driver in the new roles for instructors and students, and make possible student-centred learning experiences (McLoughlin & Lee, 2010; Salinas et al., 2008). In online learning, the presence of SCL through some of its characteristics (e.g., self-regulation or scaffolding) is even more remarkable, and has also been widely covered in the literature (e.g., see reviews by Doo et al., 2020; Wong et al., 2019). Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, different authors point towards the potential impact on the applied pedagogies due to emergency remote teaching (ERT) (Hodges et al., 2020), and suggest a greater student’s agency and responsibility for their learning and innovative ways to deliver a student-driven education (Bozkurt et al., 2020; Zhao, 2020). However, this aspect has not been addressed in detail yet (see reviews by Bond et al., 2021; Stewart, 2021). Although the literature on online learning has already addressed some of the aspects of SCL, the particular situation of ERT is of interest as a different form than online learning (Hodges et al., 2020) and deserves special attention.

In the context of the study, I align with the concept of SCL related to the notion of student-centred learning environments (SCLEs) suggested by Damşa and Lange (2019), since learning cannot be “designed”, but instead teaching and pedagogical design can provide the environment and tools that offer opportunities for (student-centred) learning (Goodyear & Dimitriadis, 2013). In this context, the model “Own it, Learn it, and Share it” (OLSit) proposed by Lee and Hannafin (2016) offers a design framework based on relevant theories that fits this notion of SCLEs. Despite not being designed in the context of Covid-19, the OLSit has been considered as very applicable to the online shift in educational contexts caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, due to the simplicity of the framework (Cheng, 2020; Edyburn, 2021), when self-directed learning was required for a good online learning performance (Gu, 2021). This even considering that educators were often lacking experience in online education and / or teacher digital competence (Gewerc et al., 2020; Stewart, 2021). This aspect makes the model OLSit to be a convenient way to analyse the design of SCLEs in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Therefore, in this study I explore the SCL approaches that have been carried out as part of university courses during Covid-19 against the elements of the OLSit model in a systematic literature review. The aim of this paper is to critically analyse SCL approaches in higher education developed during Covid-19, from the point of view of their design as reported by instructors-authors in the literature.

By doing this, I attempt to provide answers to the following questions:

  • How have SCL approaches been designed during ERT in higher education?

  • How do these SCL approaches (not) align with the pedagogical concept as understood in the literature?

  • What (involved and missing) issues are especially particular from SCL approaches during this period?

2. Literature review

2.1 Emergency remote education in higher education and its impact

Hodges et al. (2020) make a clear distinction between “experiences that are planned from the beginning and designed to be online” and ERT, which “is a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances”. This is also emphasized by the survey report on the impact of Covid-19 on higher education around the world developed by Marinoni et al. (2020):

Several respondents referred to the fact that a different pedagogy is required for distance teaching and learning and that it is a challenge for faculty to seamlessly make this sudden and unprepared shift from face-to-face to distance teaching and learning. The level of readiness or preparedness of teachers to lift this challenge is very diverse (p. 25).

The same authors reported that faculty often used a “learning by doing” approach or tried to imitate a face-to-face mode using the online teaching mode, which reflects a general lack of teaching experience in online education (Gewerc et al., 2020; Stewart, 2021).

Despite these circumstances, some authors show optimism about the impact of Covid-19 on educational innovation and change in teaching and learning (Ellis et al., 2020; Marinoni et al., 2020; Zhao, 2020). Mishra et al. (2020) describe a three-step process based on Lewin’s change management theory to explain the innovative changes related to Covid-19 in higher education: 1) unfreezing of traditional teaching-learning, which provided motivation and readiness among stakeholders, 2) changing to online learning, replicating practices from other institutions, or using one’s own, and 3) refreezing, to integrate technology in teaching-learning processes for flexible learning. Flexible modes of delivery and of achievement of learning outcomes have been emphasized as essential and, therefore, the fact that SCL approaches are very much needed is again highlighted (McMillan, 2020). Therefore, evaluation questions such as how faculty handled the design of ERT, where they (and the students) struggled the most and what the outcomes of this process were, are relevant in the context of ERT (Marinoni et al., 2020). On the other hand, Bozkurt and Sharma (2020), in their reflection about ERT remind instructors to ask themselves if they are focusing enough on learners and learning, and not just consider ERT as an “opportunity to test online pedagogy centric approaches” (p. 3).

According to the different reviews conducted in the Covid-19 period so far (Bond et al., 2021; Stewart, 2021), students’ perceptions about online learning and the impact of the shift to online learning were major areas of interest. Course redesign - without specifying whether or not an SCL approach was adopted - was the focus of only the 11% of the empirical studies included in the systematic literature review by Bond et al. (2021). This fact invites to take a deeper look into the literature in this period to explore if and how SCL approaches have been (re)designed in the context of ERT, considering both the optimism about the impact of Covid-19 on educational change in higher education and the diverse level of preparedness of instructors for ERT.

2.2 Student-centred learning (SCL)

Although there is no clear definition of SCL, there is an overall agreement on SCL being rooted in the philosophy that the student is at the heart of the learning process (European Students’ Union, 2010). In SCL approaches, students assume autonomy and responsibility for their own learning, by processing interpreting, and refining meaning and understanding that rests on individual experiences (Lee & Hannafin, 2016). These authors also argue that SCL is a complex learning process in which students are supported in the motivational, social, and cognitive aspects. On the other hand, the concept is not free from polemic. Different studies at the EU level suggest that the implementation of SCL is inadequate and a part of the reason for this is that SCL is often misconceptualized (Dakovic & Zhang, 2020).

Considering the above-mentioned understanding of SCL, the learning theory of the andragogy underpins SCL with the conception of self-directed learning, which is considered “…a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes” (Knowles, 1975, p. 18, cited in Blaschke & Marín, 2020). In andragogic settings, learners have more control in organizing and directing learning, and therefore they have more autonomy, than in didactic settings. A further level takes self-directed learning to self-determined learning in the learning theory of heutagogy, by adding a non-linear learning structure, self-determined and transformational learning in terms of self-efficacy, competency, capability, etc. In this way, the Pedagogy-Andragogy-Heutagogy (PAH) continuum is considered a progression towards further learner autonomy (Blaschke, 2012). The PAH continuum is an instructional theory, meaning that it is situation-based and done purposely to facilitate learning and can use different instructional methods (e.g., problem-based learning) for SCL.

According to Lee and Hannafin (2016), SCL has been covered through different names, which are considered forms or approaches to SCL – or instructional methods, as suggested in Blaschke and Marín (2020): problem-based learning, project-based learning, case-based learning and inquiry learning. In all these constructivist approaches, students construct knowledge by exploring and analysing versus processing specified content from directed instruction. Also, student and instructors’ roles change against the traditional roles: students as knowledge creators and evaluators instead of receivers, and educators as facilitators and scaffolding providers, instead of knowledge transmitters (Lee & Hannafin, 2016). Considering the PAH continuum, the traditional roles will correspond with pedagogy or didactic as a teaching theory, “rather than a learning theory, […] usually based on transmission” (McAuliffe et al., 2009, p. 14), whereas the new ones would be somewhere within andragogy and heutagogy.

The relations between SCL and technology have been explicitly underlined by the educational technology literature (Salinas, Pérez Garcias & de Benito, 2008). For instance, the literature review by Väätäjä and Ruokamo (2021) highlights that “constructivist and student-centered approaches seem to be largely associated with digital pedagogy” (p. 8). Furthermore, the systematic literature review on technology-enhanced learning for student agency in higher education by Marín et al. (2020) puts many learner processes connected to SCL (e.g., learner autonomy, ownership of learning, self-regulation) in relation to the use of technology in the classroom. Also, previous work has underlined the use of different technologies and digital pedagogies for supporting SCL and student agency (Blaschke & Marín, 2020; Buchem et al., 2020; Castañeda & Tur, 2020; Dabbagh & Castañeda, 2020; Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012; Drexler, 2010; McLoughlin & Lee, 2010; Rahimi et al., 2015).

Finally, it has already been acknowledged that SCL is a “pedagogical approach deeply rooted in historical, philosophical-religious, and thus cultural conditions of Western Europe and the United States” (Komatsu et al., 2021, p. 8). As the same authors explain, SCL emerged with teacher-centered learning (TCL) declining, becoming the construction of pedagogy dichotomous (SCL/TCL). However, the conception behind this study is not in line with the idea of students taking distance from social relations posed by Komatsu et al. (2021). In considering different forms of SCL, I recognize the importance of social relations created by methods such as (group) project-based learning or (group) problem-based learning.

3. Theoretical framework

Considering its focus on engagement in SCL approaches and its applicability to ERT (Cheng, 2020; Edyburn, 2021), in this study I take into consideration the framework “Own it, Learn it and Share it” (OLSit) developed by Lee and Hannafin (2016). Three theories underpin this framework: the self-determination theory, constructivism, and constructionism. To these theories, I add two theories derived from education, heutagogy and andragogy. Both are considered to foster SCL according to McAuliffe et al. (2009). An overview of these theories has been already provided in section 2.2.

The self-determination theory points towards learner autonomy and connects to the learning theory of heutagogy. The self-determination theory relates autonomy to a high-quality motivation, which may be intrinsic or extrinsic; however, interactions between these types of motivation influence student’ performance and learning in SCL (Ryan & Deci, 2006). Considering the PAH continuum, the realization of self-determined learning at the heutagogy level would require the highest level of learner maturity and autonomy, whereas the course structure and instructor control are kept low, in comparison to previous levels in the continuum (andragogy or the cultivation of self-directed learning, and pedagogy or didactic as engagement with learning) (Blaschke, 2012).

Constructivism focuses on the students’ processes of discovery to obtain knowledge by themselves and then using it to transform this knowledge into something new when organizing it, rearranging it and connecting previous and new knowledge, considering the learner, the context and understanding as interdependent and connected elements (Bruner, 1961, cited in Lee & Hannafin, 2016). In this study, it is also especially important to consider elements from social constructivism, which incorporates the importance of peer interactions to reach richer levels of understanding than individually (Vygotsky, 1978, cited in Lee & Hannafin, 2016).

Constructionism involves the active production by students of external and shareable artifacts to communicate one’s knowledge (Jonassen et al., 1996). The learning process is considered to take place both in the creation and sharing the products, and the student engagement with those artifacts is cognitive and emotional (Price & Marshall, 2013).

Based on those theories, three main constructs are built upon the framework: autonomy (self-determination theory), scaffolding (constructivism) and audience (constructionism). The framework integrates motivational, cognitive, social, and affective aspects of learning. The model proposes design guidelines based on the three constructs (Lee & Hannafin, 2016) (see Figure 1):

  • Own it targets the development of personal ownership and autonomous motivation. Students define their purpose and prepare their learning plan supported by the educator (Edyburn, 2021). Design suggestions include the facilitation of the endorsement of external goals, the provision of opportunities to set specific personal goals and the provision of choices that matter. Many of those suggestions relate to the principles of andragogy (McAuliffe et al., 2009).

  • Learn it is focused on scaffolding the accomplishment of goals. Students engage in learning activities that are operationalized through their learning plan (Edyburn, 2021). Design guidelines are related to providing explicit directions on starting engagement, supporting the selection and use of tools and resources, prompting to support varying needs, integrating the terminology used in the discipline, and supporting students as they monitor their progress.

  • Share it addresses student engagement by presenting and sharing artifacts with authentic audiences. Students would identify the channel(s) for sharing their learning with an authentic audience (Edyburn, 2021). Design guidelines include the promotion of dialogue among students and audiences, and the facilitation of helpful peer review.

Each of these components has subcomponents that are shown and briefly described in Figure 1 for the purpose of the current analysis. According to the literature provided by the authors, all these subcomponents have positive direct or indirect effects on student’s engagement in their learning.

Subcomponents of the OLSit framework

Figure 1: Subcomponents of the OLSit framework. Note. The subcomponents correspond to the design assumptions of the OLSit framework and the descriptions have been adapted in consideration with the design guidelines provided. Adapted from “A design framework for enhancing engagement in student-centered learning: own it, learn it, and share it” by E. Lee and M. J. Hannafin, 2016, Educational Technology Research and Development, 64, pp. 722-727. (

4. Research design

A critical analysis of a selected sample of articles using the OLSit framework will provide an account for new introduced or redesigned SCL approaches in times of Covid-19 in different disciplines and countries. The study will identify how the constructs from OLSit were covered by those course designs through different aspects, such as: the characteristics of the designs, how these were designed and implemented, how evaluation from those designs was planned, and the results of the implementation, in case they were reported. In order to select the sample and determine these aspects, a systematic review with searches in international databases was carried out.

The systematic literature review was conducted using the EPPI-Reviewer software (Thomas et al., 2020). The international databases included Web of Science (WoS), Scopus, ERIC and Dialnet - the latter only has records in Spanish. The search was done in two rounds: one on the 8th February 2021 and another one on the 9th April 2021. All types of publications were considered in the search but had to be published in 2020 or 2021, and to describe an educational experience during Covid-19.

The search string varied slightly according to the Boolean operators in use in each of the databases, but the main one included English and Spanish terms and was as follows:

(student-centred  OR  “centrad* en el alumn*”  OR  student-centered  OR  learner-centred  OR  learner-centered  OR  “centrad* en el aprendiz”  OR  “centrad* en el estudiante”  OR  “problem-based learning”  OR  “project-based learning”  OR  “case-based learning”  OR  “inquiry learning”  OR  “aprendizaje basado en problemas”  OR  “aprendizaje basado en proyectos”  OR  “aprendizaje basado en casos”  OR  “aprendizaje por indagación”) AND (learning  OR  aprendizaje  OR  educación  OR  education) AND (covid-19  OR  covid19  OR  pandemic*  OR  pandemia) AND (“higher education”  OR  “universit*”  OR  “educación superior”  OR  “universidad*”)

The inclusion and exclusion criteria are described below in Table 1. Those publications that did not provide enough design information of the SCL activities of the course or were focused on specific parts of the course instead of the overall course design (e.g., focus only on assessment, on the educational resources, on the tools used, on the contents of the subject-matter, etc.) were excluded.

Inclusion criteria

Exclusion criteria

Higher Education (HE) experiences

Other educational levels different from HE

Experience during Covid-19

Experience before Covid-19

Language: English and Spanish

Any other language

Focus on the design of a SCL course (any form of SCL)

No focus on design nor design of a SCL course

Table 1: Inclusion and exclusion criteria

The process and different steps from the initial collection of references until the final selection of studies can be observed in the PRISMA diagram in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Systematic review PRISMA diagram in the study

The final selection for critical analysis included 9 peer-reviewed publications (8 journal articles and 1 conference presentation). Content analysis of all full texts was conducted also in EPPI Reviewer. On the one hand, the studies were coded on basic information about the 1) presence/absence of the conception or understanding of SLC in the study, 2) course context: continent (and country) of implementation, higher education level (undergraduate/postgraduate), discipline, aims and prerequisites, and 3) the SCL approach (problem-based learning, project-based learning, inquiry learning, case-based learning, other). On the other hand, aspects such as the initial situation of the course, the description of the SCL (re)design and the results of the redesign were included as part of the 4) course (re)design. Finally, the coding schema included the three components of the OLSit model and their design assumptions (Lee & Hannafin, 2016, p. 723). The results of the courses’ redesigns are discussed together with the critical analysis based on the OLSit model.

5. Findings

5.1 Background information

Before the critical analysis, a contextualization of each of the course designs described in the studies has been done to understand better the design choices (see Appendix A). This course context covers the continent and country of implementation, higher education level, discipline, aims and prerequisites (if present).

To start with, only 4 out of the 9 studies conceptualized or described the authors’ understanding of SCL or of the SCL approach used in the course. Regarding the geographical location of the courses, the sample of studies includes course designs from almost every continent (except from Oceania), with prominence of Europe and North America (3 out of 9 each). Also, the sample includes the representation of five disciplines (Health & Welfare; Natural Science; Maths & Statistics; Education; Business, Administration & Law; and ICT), being Business, Administration & Law the most frequent (3 out of 9). Most of the papers were addressing undergraduate courses (7 out of 9) and problem-based learning approaches (6 out of 9).

Three out of 9 studies did not include information about the aims of the course (design) and only one described prerequisites for the course. In all the studies, previous experience with SCL design and developed were acknowledged; therefore, the (re)design was mostly the consideration of the online settings and the readjustment of the organization of the sessions. In other words, no educator had to actually start from scratch in this challenge and counted with previous valuable experience in addressing SCL approaches.

5.2 Critical analysis based on the OLSit framework

As explained in section 4, the three main components of the OLSit framework (own it, learn it and share it) were considered in order to critically analyse the implementation of SCL approaches in higher education courses during Covid-19 times. The detailed analysis per study can be found in Appendix B, which is linked to the results obtained in each of the cases and described as follows, including considerations regarding the initial (re)design and its outcomes (only when specified) in terms of the OLSit framework.

5.2.1 Own it

The component Own it was covered by 5 of the studies in all each design elements, except from goal setting (only 3).

One of the most common design elements was providing a personally meaningful choice (n=5), and this was usually exemplified by offering different topics or problems to target through project-based or problem-based learning (Adinolfi & Giancotti, 2021; Arcos-Alonso & Alonso, 2021; Ehlers, 2020; Klegeris, 2020; Quintana & Quintana, 2020). For instance, in the problem-based learning approach from Ehlers (2020, p. 57), students could “choose one of five overarching topics related to artificial intelligence and the future society”, and this was a meaningful choice because the theme is relevant for students’ personal and professional lives.

For the case of internalizing the rationale (n=5), this involved the development of an awareness and an understanding of the course aims in all the cases (Ehlers, 2020; Klegeris, 2020; Mejía, 2020; Quintana & Quintana, 2020; Singh et al., 2021). An example is provided by Quintana and Quintana (2020), where a specifications list was provided to the students at the beginning of the course; each of the list items related to a course-learning goal, hoping to “alleviate student anxiety associated with their efforts to meet objectives at the highest levels of each rubric criterion” (p. 528). The authors explain the importance of this list for internalizing the rationale in terms of results as follows:

Anecdotally, student work was not adversely affected by the move to specifications grading. If anything, the simplified grading criteria seemed to free up students and the instructor to focus on the important work of meeting course learning goals, rather than worrying about the details of the various levels of achievement they could reach on the previously used analytic rubric (Quintana & Quintana, 2020, p. 531).

Endorsing the value (n=5) involved emphasizing real-world problems, familiar situations that affect students’ lives (Ehlers, 2020; Halaweh, 2020; Klegeris, 2020; Mejía, 2020; Singh et al., 2021). For instance, Mejía (2020, p. 139, own translation) describes how students were presented the question “how to build a battery with inexpensive, household materials, and that do not represent an environmental problem?”. In addition, students and instructor “discussed the importance of an emergency power source, such as batteries, in places where electricity is inaccessible” that led to generate a common battery.

Goal setting (n=3) referred to the possibility of students defining their objectives for their work. For example, Ehlers (2020, p. 58) described how students should develop a “mission statement” as the second step of the project group by focusing “on possible approaches to the problem statement” and, therefore, by reflecting on “what needs to be done to achieve a good future for its topic against the background of their “strong beliefs” and problem statements”.

5.2.2 Learn it

The component Learn it was included by 8 of the studies in two of the design elements, whereas progress monitoring and individual needs were covered by less studies (6 and 3, respectively).

Prompting and modelling (n=8) were exemplified by instructors facilitating challenging, reflective, or guiding questions (Adinolfi & Giancotti, 2021; Ehlers, 2020; Klegeris, 2020; Quintana & Quintana, 2020; Singh et al., 2021), showing examples of what students had to do (Arcos-Alonso & Alonso, 2021) and providing additional support (Havenga, 2020). For instance, Adinolfi and Giancotti (2021, p. 11) describe how “the first phase, which corresponds to the internalization phase of SECI model (explicit to tacit), is led by the facilitators’ leader, who consecutively poses five challenging questions to the participants that are connected in plenary through the Team platform”. One study highlighted the important role of teaming up for discussion and making possible the progress within the proximal development zones (Mejía, 2020). In reflecting on the results, Singh et al. (2021, p. 192) remark as limitation the lack of in-person interactions with preceptors and other health care professionals as role models but the author believes “these (online) interactions (small group discussions, preceptors sharing problem-solving strategies) between preceptors and small groups helped to bridge the gap between theory and practice and gave the students exposure to role models that they could emulate in future rotations”.

Most of the studies refer to tools and resources (n=8) too (Adinolfi & Giancotti, 2021; Arcos-Alonso & Alonso, 2021; Ehlers, 2020; Halaweh, 2020; Havenga, 2020; Klegeris, 2020; Quintana & Quintana, 2020; Singh et al., 2021). These tools and resources included in most cases, generic digital tools that were used during the course, e.g., videoconference tools such as Zoom or Teams and their various functionalities (Halaweh, 2020; Havenga, 2020), the institutional virtual learning platform or non-institutional communication tools like Whatsapp (Havenga, 2020). In one of the courses described by the studies, Perusall for social annotation was used (Quintana & Quintana, 2020). In terms of resources, some studies refer to research articles, course readings or lecture slides; and to analytical resources such as rubrics or storyboards (Klegeris, 2020; Quintana & Quintana, 2020). In one case, subject-specific tools such as statistical ones are referred (Arcos-Alonso & Alonso, 2021). Some of the studies mentioned the provision of particular tools, learning resources and templates without being specific about them (Adinolfi & Giancotti, 2021; Ehlers, 2020; Singh et al., 2021).

This provision acted for the benefit of the quality of the projects, as Adinolfi and Giancotti (2021, p. 13) highlight that “most of the final projects were excellent: participants themselves were surprised at how capable they were to elaborate a change project when the conceptual tools were used in the perspective of action”. Havenga (2020, p. 344) explains that “participants […] discussed the programs using WhatsApp to comment on one another’s coding. Thereafter, they used Zoom, discussed each instruction and asked questions regarding the use of the correct programming blocks and their functionality (and improved the programming code)”.

Progress monitoring (n=6) was usually made effective through (regular) personalised meetings of the groups or individuals with the instructors or coaching sessions (Arcos-Alonso & Alonso, 2021; Ehlers, 2020; Mejía, 2020; Quintana & Quintana, 2020). For instance, Arcos-Alonso and Alonso (2021, p. 285) highlight the organization of “personalised group-by-group attention through the Blackboard Collaborate virtual meetings platform, whereas the interesting doubts were shared in the virtual classroom sessions, reserving a specific space for this”. Two other actions for tracking progress monitoring that lay more on the student side are provided by Halaweh (2020), who highlights that the students had to meet certain milestones in order to demonstrate their progress, and by Havenga (2020), where students had to complete a weekly reflective sheet template.

Few studies mention some actions for addressing individual needs (n=3) (Ehlers, 2020; Mejía, 2020; Quintana & Quintana, 2020). For instance, Quintana and Quintana (2020, p. 529) describe that each group of students had a document where they could “list specific areas they wanted feedback on” during the second online session, when they were working “on a different specifications subset (scenario design and scaffolding design framework)” for their projects - during the first online session they focused on preparing the vision of learning context and rationale for pedagogical choices.

The teaching, coaching role within these “Learn it” design elements has been considered a key success factor in the courses, especially in terms of communication and emotional aspects. The advantages of guidance by the instructors rather than instructions were derived from students’ feedback that emphasized the concept of coaching in the course described by Ehlers (2020, p. 63): “the coaching has supported the ability for self-directed and self-organized learning” and “students have experienced the intensive coaching sessions, insightful information sessions and many suggestions for reflection as helpful for their own problem construction and solution process”. Similarly, Mejía (2020, p. 142) emphasizes the high quality of the final student works, in some cases higher than in face-to-face classes, and attributes this success to the personalized feedback group sessions on agreed, flexible schedule and to carrying out asynchronous activities that facilitate the own best timing and space distribution by the students.

5.2.3 Share it

The component Share it was covered by 7 of the studies in terms of artifact generation, 5 each for authentic audiences and peer review, and only 2 mentioned web 2.0 publications. One of the studies did not include any design element from this component (Arcos-Alonso & Alonso, 2021).

Most of the studies referred to very diverse, and in occasions combined, artifact generation (n=7) by the students, ranging from a classical written (reflective or case) paper (Ehlers, 2020; Mejía, 2020; Quintana & Quintana, 2020; Singh et al., 2021), to multimedia artifacts, such as a video (Ehlers, 2020; Havenga, 2020; Mejía, 2020) or an infographics (Mejía, 2020), and (software) prototypes and/or their concepts (Adinolfi & Giancotti, 2021; Halaweh, 2020; Quintana & Quintana, 2020). These examples are illustrated by the following excerpts: “students were working on creating prototypes for a product, website, mobile application, house, park or whatever the project domain entailed” (Halaweh, 2020, p. 6); or “the teams delivered their battery proposal in the form of a written paper that was guided by a rubric (discussed in the team feedback sessions) and a video or infographic” (Mejía, 2020, p. 141, own translation).

Authentic audiences (n=5) when students share their course artifacts are also varied, and seems to be dependent on the disciplines and the type of artifact developed (Adinolfi & Giancotti, 2021; Ehlers, 2020; Halaweh, 2020; Mejía, 2020; Quintana & Quintana, 2020). For example, the course design presented by Ehlers (2020) included the generation of a student conference, where students would present their artefacts to a jury and the public (academic and professional public, and broader public via online media). The outcomes were mainly positive, as according to Ehlers (2020),

The involvement of the public as well as the publication of the artefacts has created a feeling of recognition by the teachers among the students, what has motivated them to commit themselves beyond the usual level. Due to the presentation of their work in a public event with high media impact, the students perceived their work as highly valued and important (Ehlers, 2020, p. 63).

Quintana and Quintana (2020, p. 531) also highlight the positive effect of the design element regarding authentic audiences in the course outcomes: “This added level of interaction between students and experts from outside the traditional class organization further supported the instructor’s goal of cultivating a knowledge community in ways that they had not been able to implement in previous course offerings”.

Peer review (n=5) was included in some of the course designs, as a way of providing consultancy and informal feedback, e.g., through voting (Adinolfi & Giancotti, 2021; Ehlers, 2020; Havenga, 2020; Klegeris, 2020; Quintana & Quintana, 2020), and in two cases was specified to be part of the course assessment (Ehlers, 2020; Havenga, 2020). Klegeris (2020, p. 4) explains that “students are expected to research all learning objectives independently, and their level of preparation is evaluated by their peers during the subsequent PBL session”. Havenga (2020, p. 342) describes how the instructor asked the students’ teams “to select the “best” example and add some functionality”.

Web 2.0 publications (n=2) were represented by publication in the project website (Ehlers, 2020) and publication of a video or an infographics for the public outside the classroom, without specification of the platform (Mejía, 2020). Ehlers (2020) describes it as follows: “the working papers, video clips and presentation materials are then published on the internet” (p. 57), “on the project website (” (p. 63).

5.2.4 Overview of the findings

To wrap up the findings of the study, and before moving forward to the discussion of the results, I include a graphical overview of the distribution of the components and subcomponents of the OLSit model in the analysed studies. All the components were covered by the studies, but the subcomponents were unevenly addressed, as shown by Figure 3.

Figure 3: Distribution of the components and subcomponents of the OLSit model in the analysed studies

Note. The distribution by colours corresponds to each of the components of the OLSit model and the size of each box depends on the number of studies represented by each subcomponent, which is indicated after the semicolon in each case.

6. Discussion

This study has brought to light some of the challenges of SCL implementation, as described previously in section 2.2 (Dakovic & Zhang, 2020; Damşa & Lange, 2019). One example can be observed from the same review itself, and from a terminological perspective: even though some studies that were discarded in the first or second phase used SCL as one of the keywords, these did not actually reflect SCL approaches as understood in this study. As Väätäjä and Ruokamo (2021) describe in their literature review, TEL practices cannot be automatically considered as constructivist. However, many of those discarded studies showed that some authors label digital pedagogical practices with different pedagogical orientations from the ones supporting SCL approaches (e.g., behaviourist). The definition of SCL itself proves to be messy in this sense.

Moving away from terminology and focusing on the application of SCL approaches, findings from Nascimento et al. (2020) show that SCL can become frustrating, stressful, and conflicting for some students that have an underdeveloped autonomy skill; however, “the process of the ability to learn how to learn is gradual and […] can evolve over time” (p. 8). The challenge of self-organization, the learner autonomy, is specifically addressed by Ehlers (2020). Students in the course described by Havenga (2020) were considered to learn a lot by having to solve the problems on their own; though initially experiencing difficulties in the coding task, they used Youtube videos to assist them. Along this line, Klegeris (2020, p. 5) observes from informal feedback of the course described that “students adapted well to this new PBL (problem-based learning) environment and were able to self-organise, problem-solve and successfully conduct online discussions unsupervised”. However, Väätäjä and Ruokamo (2021) emphasize that instructors are required to play the role of the guide, leader, and facilitator of the learning process in SCL approaches that include the use of digital pedagogies, which reflects findings from some analysed papers (Arcos-Alonso & Alonso, 2021; Ehlers, 2020; Mejía, 2020; Quintana & Quintana, 2020). Aspects related to this role of instructors, as well as the challenges for the assumption of own responsibility for learning in the case of students, are also highlighted in the pre-pandemic literature regarding the use of digital technologies for SCL (Blaschke & Marín, 2020; Drexler, 2010; McLoughlin & Lee, 2010).

On the other hand, the emergency situation derived from the Covid-19 pandemic has surfaced the “pedagogy of care” and “human-centred design” (Karakaya, 2020). The pandemic has made noticeable that the emotional role of teaching and learning in online learning, including using SCL approaches, has been often neglected (Bozkurt & Sharma, 2020). Elements from these care approaches can be observed in many of the course (re)designs of the studies in the sample but are missing from the model used (OLSit). By fostering problem-solving approaches through empathy building, Karakaya (2020, p. 2) sustains that instructors would “tailor teaching designs that reflect students’ needs and supportive online learning environments”. For instance, Quintana and Quintana (2020) specified that the instructor was seeking to alleviate student anxiety with regard to course assessment by using a clear and detailed specifications list, which worked better than expected in the Covid-19 pandemic context. Improvements in this sense were also made by students in the course described by Singh et al. (2021) by suggesting reducing the class time using Zoom to address student fatigue and improve focus.

On top of this, there is the social component that it is not usually made explicit neither in definitions of SCL nor the same framework used in this study but contributes to human-centred design. The authors from the different studies show this important element in SCL approaches, especially considering that most of them take place often in groups (in this case, in all the courses). For instance, Adinolfi and Giancotti (2021, p. 12) remark that “incorporating informal moments produced an emotional improvement that the authors guess that also influenced cognitive and practical abilities”. Also, Mejía (2020) emphasizes that active methodologies, including SCL approaches, should take care of creating a warm and positive class atmosphere and interactions, especially in the virtual context, which is also highlighted in the literature concerning ERT (Bozkurt & Sharma, 2020). Similarly, Havenga (2020) underscores the importance of counteracting isolation in online problem-based learning activities by providing options for online collaboration to interact with others, and remarks the positive experience of participants in their work in problem-based teams; furthermore, “they assisted each other, reassured and motivated each other to find a solution and worked well together” (p. 344).

These aspects, together with the importance of the instructor guidance and the elements of the pedagogy of care, suggest the incorporation of a possible new element to the framework regarding to the emotional part of SCL approaches, which I would call “Feel it”.

Aspects directly related to the instructors’ work to redesign the courses must be also acknowledged. For instance, technical and administrative obstacles related to the course adjustments, as well as poor organizational support to the projects in some cases, were highlighted by Adinolfi and Giancotti (2021). As the authors remark, “this proved that an advanced learner-centered methodology cannot magically substitute for a lack of sponsorship or unaddressed organizational politics. Moreover, a cohesive team of prepared and committed facilitators is required” (p. 15). Mejía (2020) also remarks the intensive, extra work that meant for the instructor to redesign the SCL approach in the online context. Arcos-Alonso and Alonso (2021) show that the online shift required an important change in the teaching role in order to facilitate pedagogical strategies in the interaction processes of the sessions. Issues regarging instructor workload in online teaching have been already discussed in the literature (Wingo et al., 2017).

Finally, although SCL approaches put a strong emphasis on owning responsibility for learning and promoting autonomy, the reflective part seems to be missing - at least in the course descriptions presented. The “Share it” component, especially the emphasis on Web 2.0 publications was neither common (see section 5.2.3), which contrasts with the possibilities of digital pedagogies that have been extensively discussed previously in the literature (Blaschke & Marín, 2020; Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012; Drexler, 2010). Also, many course descriptions did not address the assessment neither some did the learning goals, which are key components of course design, along with the teaching and learning activities (Fink, 2003).

On the other side, the information provided about the use of technologies does not allow to deepen on critical aspects regarding digital divide and data privacy (Williamson et al., 2020), neither are these aspects explicitly discussed in the studies. It can be guessed that most of the technological use refers to institutional tools, such as the institutional virtual learning platforms and, presumably, the videoconference systems and other tools with an institutional license. The only non-institutional tool mentioned by the studies is Whatsapp in the South African course (Havenga, 2020), which was used for interactions between students for a coding task. Although students are active in social media tools such as Whatsapp for informal communication, some studies suggest that they are mostly unaware of data privacy policies (Marín et al., 2021; Obar & Oeldorf-Hirsch, 2020; Steinfeld, 2016). Also, no digital divide issues were problematized, apart from the concrete mention of sporadic and minor technical difficulties with Internet connection experienced by students in the U.S. course described by Singh et al. (2021). The presence of these issues was also minor in the review by Bond et al. (2021), where only 13.5% of the studies focused on the students’ technical equipment. Furthermore, differences between design choices in the diverse countries are not clear, and could not be taken into account without also considering the diversity between disciplines.

7. Conclusion

The present study brought to light some examples of application of SCL approaches in higher education in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is remarkable that all studies highlight the positive effects of the course redesigns based on students’ feedback or results, in some cases even said to be superior to the previous face-to-face course versions. Also, some of the authors (e.g., Halaweh, 2020) note the need to not limit SCL approaches to the crisis situation and adopt them also in “normal” situations. This is also in line with the hope that Covid-19 serves as a catalyst for educational change raised by Zhao (2020).

The OLSit framework has been useful to critically analyse the different course design elements present in the studies according to the pedagogical concept but has also shown some parts where it could be enhanced or extended. For instance, in relation to group work and the pedagogy of care, the latter of which emerged strongly with the pandemic situation (Bozkurt et al., 2020; Karakaya, 2020). Although this study has contributed to show practice examples of how the different course design elements could be during Covid-19, more research on the use of the model is needed in order to show further examples of practice for the design guidelines and elements, also designed using the model as the basis for it (Cheng, 2021).

Recommendations derived from this study include a) the consideration of the instructor workload and related challenges (e.g., administrative) for the adaptation of SCL approaches to the online settings; b) a more decisive inclusion of the “Share it” elements, especially the Web 2.0 publication, considering the digital potentialities (but without forgetting the challenges, e.g., data privacy and author’s licenses); and c) the incorporation of emotional aspects within the course design, following guidelines from the pedagogy of care.

Some considerations need to be acknowledged as limitations of this study. The selected studies are not necessarily the best examples for SCL approaches during Covid-19; instead, out of the complete sample from the systematic review done, these were the ones with more detail in terms of SCL course design. Also, the SCL focus common in Europe and North America may be reflecting biases present in the literature regarding geographical focus to the detriment of the Global South, as has been observed in previous studies (Bond et al., 2021). On the other hand, the search string could have left out important terms to identify SCL studies during Covid-19 times or have been too narrow. Furthermore, the different SCL formats are also dependent on the discipline, and this could bring some biased interpretation of the SCL design.

Future research could point towards different directions. One of them could put the emphasis on studying the emotional aspects of teaching and learning in SCL course design. Also, implications of course design related to digital divide, data privacy and cultural differences in different digital teaching and learning approaches, could be further explored. Last, but not least, primary research to study SCL course design in higher education can significantly contribute to complement these findings and unveil issues that may not be discussed when reporting the studies.


This research study has been funded by the Spanish State Research Agency of the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities and the European Social Fund through a Ramón y Cajal Research Fellowship (RYC2019-028398-I funded by MCIN/AEI/ 10.13039/501100011033 and FSE “El FSE invierte en tu futuro”).

About the author

Victoria I. Marín, Department of Pedagogy, University of Lleida, Lleida, Spain.

Victoria I. Marín

Victoria I. Marín is a Senior Research Fellow (Ramón y Cajal) in Educational Sciences at the University of Lleida (Spain) and member of the research group Competences, Education, Technology and Society (COMPETECS) at the same university. She holds a PhD in Educational Technology from the University of the Balearic Islands (UIB, Spain). Research collaborator of the Institute for Research and Innovation in Education with the Educational Technology Group of the UIB and member of the Centre for Open Education Research (COER, Oldenburg). Among her research interests are: self-regulated learning, digital competence and (personal) data literacy, personal learning environments (PLE), personal learning networks (PLN), and the use of digital technologies for student-centred teaching and learning, especially in the context of higher education.

Email: [email protected]

ORCID: 0000-0002-4673-6190

Twitter: @vmarinj

Article information

Article type: Full paper, double-blind peer review.

Publication history: Received: 21 June 2021. Revised: 21 September 2021. Accepted: 22 September 2021. Online: 07 March 2022.

Cover image: fauxels via Pexels.


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Appendix A. Background of the course designs of the sample

Provided as a downloadable resource (below). Please download the PDF version of the article for a paginated printable version.

Appendix B. SCL design elements in the sample based on the OLSit framework with examples of quotes for each element and paper

Provided as a downloadable resource. Please download the PDF version of the article for a paginated printable version.

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