The future use of digital technology and remote learning in Higher Education

I gave a talk in July at the Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference ‘The future use of digital technology and remote learning in Higher Education’. It was good to be invited to sit on a panel of experts talking about digital course design.

Image by Brigitte makes custom works from your photos, thanks a lot from Pixabay

Slightly edited transcript of my talk

This talk is about the design of online courses. Leading in the design of online courses at my institution the most common questions I get from colleagues in the sector are ‘How much does it cost?’ and ‘How long does it take?’ to design an online course. I’m going to explore that a bit.

The institution I work at offers all its Undergraduate and Postgraduate degree and apprenticeship degree programmes entirely online. We have been providing ‘remote’ education – a term I will revisit, for over 100 years. Providing online, flexible, scalable academic and vocational learning journeys is what we do. In the past we did this by post, now we do it via the internet.

How many of you are over the age of 30? That’s largely who our online learner community are – working professionals who are upskilling and want to stay up-to-date with developments in their field, or students who may have missed out on conventional pathways to higher education seeking to achieve career or academic goals. Long periods of full time learning are unsuitable for these cohorts  – 96% of our students opt to study part-time.

"The experience of supported online education fits perfectly with the digital era of our day-to-day life. Access to the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) from my phone, iPad, laptop or work computer allows me to listen to webinars or participate in discussion forums any time of the day.“

Ayesha Azar, MSc Real EstateGraduate Surveyor, Valuation Agency, London, UK

What Ayesha says here is representative of why most of our students choose to study with us – because of the flexibility we provide. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic we have not had to make significant adjustments to learning and teaching because the support for flexible study was already embedded into our educational model.

In terms of designing online courses, I do not believe that we should be adapting what exists in an on-ground or blended setting. If an aim of developing provision is to reach new cohorts, to widen participation, to make education accessible to more people, to scale up ,we need to design afresh for the learners whom we want to engage, not those we have traditionally had. Comparative studies of campus and online experiences over the pandemic is not enough for the scaling of education the UK is looking to achieve, and we need to separate online learning from emergency teaching. There are different challenges to overcome, different needs and different expectations. What distinct value can we offer our learners so that they progress and succeed?.

UCEM have an educational framework that grounds the design of our online courses and reflects our strategy to provide a flexible, consistent, relevant and accessible student experience. For us this means designing learning to be outome-led to support our students’ goal-orientated focus. It has meant adopting experimental pedagogies and removing all exams, a process of reconstructing assessment to be authentic, developing the competencies and skills to support end point assessments, professional practice and workplace skills. Flexible assignment dates, resubmissions, retakes are automatically available to all as we know study often can’t be a top priority for our students.

There is a consistent VLE interface with a small suite of learning tools integrated with signposting regarding time required for learning activities, and all learning resources, student instructions and teaching narrative is quality assured and accessible – whilst learning does not necessarily have to be easy, it needs to be simple to be inclusive and support those transitioning into higher education and to keep them there.  

Designing in multiple opportunities to be present with subject matter experts, academic support tutors and other students is key to developing a learning community. We should not be designing education to be ‘remote’ or at a ‘distance’ we should design to be co-present. Online is still a place – it’s just different. Creating that online community is a really knotty challenge we have to address. To enable flexible study we must let go of the notion of contact hours and instead adopt a multi-layered approach to presence with asynchronous methods becoming a key space for learning and teaching exchange. A student comment on a weekly evaluation really stood out to me, they said ‘I can really feel the teaching in this module’ – yet there had not yet been any synchronous or recorded teaching sessions made available at that point.

All this needs to be supported by a rich course narrative and opportunities to connect individually. The balance of workload for teaching teams must be a priority, online is teaching is intensive, active and focused.

The design of online courses requires a range of expertise that goes beyond what the traditional university faculty can offer. All those involved are educators – the academics, the subject matter experts, the learning designers, the technologists, the media producers, quality control, the accessibility experts, the librarians, data analysts, support tutors – we are all responsible for student achievement, outcomes, and retention. This unbundling is necessary. It requires long term strategic investment and needs to be supported across all institutional operations.

Asking how much does it cost and how long does it take to develop an online course can only be answered by ‘it depends’ and this is a necessary evil.

Investing more upfront in the production of a course that is unlikely to change for many years and can be facilitated by subsequent faculty makes sense. Investing little and often in the production of a course that has volatile content, requires specialist teaching and frequent updates is wise.

Ultimately though I think it is the wrong question. The question should be what is the return of investment of a course over its lifetime.

If designed well, fully-online provision has the potential to return more than is invested. We can respond quickly to changing markets through curating and thematically pulling together different digital course components into new offerings. If designed with scale in mind, student numbers can be significantly increased. Ultimately this means that we can reach more learners with a diversity of needs at a point when people are being encouraged to access training and education throughout their lives. I find it ironic that as an educational professional at a leading provider of Built Environment education we will see our online architecture become more important than university buildings.


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