This is a post I’ve been contemplating for a while now. Over the past year the dialog around online learning has very much focused on supporting the pivot to online, and rightly so. However as a result of this the voices from fully online have become lost. As many institutions start to explore the possibilities that online can provide beyond the pandemic it’s important that we consider the differences between modes of online learning, especially when online is being identified as a way to reach more students (teaching at scale) or to support access and participation plans. This post is about the key principles for designing award bearing fully online education and introduces the concept of mid-point design as a focus for the application of new institutional strategies.
Mid-point design: A design approach used in the production of a credit-bearing module or course that is offered fully online, implements active pedagogy and can be scaled to increasing student numbers.
Whether it has been the pandemic or otherwise that has led to an increased appetite to provide fully online higher education experiences is up for debate. What is clear is that things are picking-up with a number of Russell Group universities advertising senior roles to lead new initiatives to develop online, award bearing, provision. These roles must harness acute business acumen, years of experience in pedagogic design, astute technical knowledge and the ability to lead change across academic practice. However, look to institutions with significant experience in providing fully online programmes of study (for instance UCEM, Open University, Derby Online, London Worldwide) and you will see that these roles are teams, unbundled to provide the required level of expertise to scope, produce, manage, and run fully online learning experiences to meet strategic goals – be that profitability, widening access or entering new markets. The disjuncture between the two largely rests on perceived notions of what a fully online provision is and what it entails to create and teach it. The points of reference for these are emergency remote teaching at one end of the scale, and large scale self-serve online courses such as MOOCs on the other. They are not accurate points of reference for the design of high quality online education that meets academic standards of validation, and the requirements set by bodies such as the OfS or OfSted.
Between mirror & MOOC
The pivot to emergency remote teaching has largely seen courses being run as a mirror of on-ground educational practice, with appropriate-to-discipline contact hours scheduled, lectures provided either synchronously or in recorded format and learning resources made digitally available on the VLE. We have seen a boom in blended-in teaching practices made possible through digital technologies, such as flipped classroom, online assessment and collaborative learning which are likely to remain. Even so, student numbers, teaching ratios, academic autonomy and workload models largely stayed as they were pre-Covid. This form of course design largely sits within existing frames of reference for academic practice. It is very much dependent on a single point (the academic teacher) to be successful, it is resource intensive to run and is difficult to scale. Whether this type of approach would work well beyond the need for emergency remote teaching is questionable. It has struggled in terms of student satisfaction, simply because students on these courses chose to physically go to university, they did not choose to be online learners with all that entails. To replicate this model would require quite a specific purpose and business case.
On the opposite end of the continuum, many universities have established suites of short online adult education courses (CPD or for interest), with the emergence of MOOCs as opportunities to reach many more thousand learners. A hallmark of these types of learning experiences is that they often come with a very specific purpose – for instance to generate income, as a recruitment strategy, or as a public engagement arm of a research project. Whilst academic staff may be involved in their authoring, these types of courses often sit apart from an academic department, they do not fall under the regulation of the Office for Students, OfSted or QAA although it is not unusual for them to support the requirements of professional bodies. They are designed in a way that does not harness a lot of academic time when they are run for instance by using computer marked assessments, or with limited opportunities for staff-student interaction – may be embedding forums facilitated by PhD students or associate tutors. This enables these courses to be run at scale, with many hundreds or thousands of learners enrolled. However these largely self-serve, and unsupported learning experiences are costly to develop – often requiring significant media production and web design and development as well as subject matter experts, editorial and learning designers. Unless designed as required CPD the costs for enrolment are relatively low and any profitably may take a number of runs to realise.
Seven principles of mid-point design
Enabling increases in student numbers through the provision of fully online education requires neither the approach of a mirror or a MOOC. Like a MOOC pre-design is key to enable larger cohorts of students to work through at their own pace (a requirement for many students who choose online for its flexibility). This makes production costs still high. However academic presence is imperative along with adopting an active and participatory pedagogical design required for academic study. The below principles highlight how these can be brought together into mid-point design.
- Upfront, outcome led, design. The ability to study anytime anywhere makes online learning the key attraction for students who require flexibility to participate in higher education, often due to also working or having other life responsibilities. A key characteristic I have observed in fully online students is that they are very goal driven, education is not so much a path of discovery but more of an intentional act of becoming – there is a specific thing they want to achieve through their commitment to study. This may be career progression, a career change or something more personal. But the intention is there. In mid-point design the approach is intentional. A course is designed from the learning outcomes (at UCEM we call this Student Outcome Led Design), both in terms of the content that will be taught and also how students are supported in their learning through specially developed learning activities and by academic staff. The module is made fully available to students from the point they start their studies to work through at their own pace. Within this structured approach, opportunities for discussion, collaboration and feedback are designed in to enable students to participate in their learning, to leave space for the emergent ideas and questions that come along the way and provide opportunities for students and teaching teams to be copresent. Flexibility is supported in mid-point design but it is part of an intentional plan on how to meet those learning outcomes. This goes much further than recording synchronous sessions, it moves into designing experiences where everyone can participate as opposed to watching back. For instance students may choose whether to take part in a discussion asynchronously on a forum or within a scheduled teaching event, both can be summarised by the module team in an activity wrap-up with cohort feedback helping learners in their next steps. For fully online this is inclusive hybrid teaching its not a matter of dual mode teaching, it flows.
- A different form of academic practice needs to be adopted. Mid-point design does not slot neatly into existing academic practice and how we turn up to the classroom is quite different from an on ground course on an online mirror of it. The costs of production are too high for it to be under the custody of one academic, and the expertise required to develop quality online learning comes from a range of individuals including learning designers, learning technologists, accessibility experts. media producers etc. At my current institution the learning designers have responsibility for pedagogy and learning design, my academic colleagues own the subject matter expertise. Many others also work on the module – media producers, editorial, quality controllers, library staff, accessibility experts. Expertise is interwoven to create an learning journey.
- Many factors affect costing. I often get asked ‘How much does it cost to produce a module?’ along with ‘How long does it take to design a module?‘ Many factors influence how long and how much resource it takes to design an online learning experience. For instance 1 HE unit of learning can take anything between 10 hours and 40 hours of academic authoring, or even more, depending on complexity of the subject area and the learning resources to be created. It is possible to use academic staff as consultants and have others skilled in writing educational web resources undertake the body of work. Learning design, editorial, quality control, technical build, testing etc often far exceeds the time of authoring. Know the factors that influence cost, and putting mechanisms in place to analyse what these are when scoping the work of any new production is key.
- Design for online presence, not contact hours. Contact hours are a staple of mirror designs, and rarely exist in MOOCs. In mid-point design there is a shift in focus to creating spaces where the academic team are visible, present and available employing more asynchronous engagement strategies and cohort feedback to enable scalability. This does not equate to lower quality, if done well it is incredibly powerful but attention must be given to ensuring that students understand what this different form of teaching is and its value.
- Consistency is key. Develop a suite of learning design resources and tools including quality standards, study time calculators, authoring templates, house style guides, standard text for student instructions etc. These all enable consistency which is key in online spaces that lack the materiality and tangibility of on-ground education. Simply using a University style or referencing guide is not sufficient, materials must be produced with a clear idea of who the students are and that they will be working on the Web which in particular has specific requirements in terms of accessibility and cognitive load.
- Workload modelling is everyone’s responsibility. This is not just about implementing an academic workload model that can be scaled with student numbers. It is also part of the responsibility of the learning designer and quality control to ensure the way that a course and its assessment is designed supports both academic and student workloads, the latter of which is essential for retention.
- Put in place retention strategies. Online courses have higher attritional rates than those held on-ground, with a conservatively reported a 10-20% higher retention failure (Bawa 2016).. This can largely be attributed to characteristics that lead to many learners choosing online – they may be more mature, study part-time, be in work and have other life responsibilities. But there are other factors too such motivational, sociological and technological, with strategies to address digital poverty key. Online courses If an aim is to keep students on programme or to convert them into learners elsewhere, a series of planned and supportive interventions are required.
Bawa P. Retention in Online Courses: Exploring Issues and Solutions—A Literature Review. SAGE Open. January 2016. doi:10.1177/2158244015621777