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Four lessons learned from making the shift to online learning

  • 14 April 2020
  • By Gary Gates

This guest blog has been provided by Dr Gary Gates, Senior Vice President of Pearson – UK Higher Education and Pearson VUE. Pearson is the world’s learning company providing content, assessment and digital online services to learners, educational institutions, employers, governments and other partners globally.

We need our universities to be engines of change. As the planet, and all of us on it, face huge challenges in the decades ahead, all of humanity’s creative and innovative capacities need to be aligned and applied as never before.

This was the call to action in The University Challengein which Charles Clarke and Ed Byrne challenge universities to play a major role in helping economies and societies to adapt and respond to the grand challenges we face. There’s no way the authors could have foreseen societal lockdown just a month after this book was published, but the challenge that they set for universities to ‘find a higher gear’ is more pertinent than ever. There’s no doubt that universities, and the sector as a whole, is responding. 

While the sector’s short-term research objectives are clear, the challenges around teaching and learning focus are less so. In a matter of weeks, universities have transitioned to remote learning at a speed no one would have thought possible. Though there is still a lot of uncertainty, it seems likely that even after the Covid-19 measures currently in place are lifted, the balance of face-to-face, blended and online learning at many universities will shift. How can universities effectively support this pivotal change to their teaching, learning and assessment? 

The nature of our business at Pearson means that we work with many digital innovators; educators who see technology as a way of solving problems and reaching new learners. However, through our traditional print book business we also hear from a large number of educators who feel more comfortable with traditional methods of delivery and who do not see online delivery as a viable way of engaging students.  We know that many learners value in-person delivery too. Generational analysis conducted by Pearson in the UK last year (based on 2,400 responses) indicates a growing preference for digital learning among Generation Z and the increasing use of tools like YouTube. However, the research also indicates that this generation likes methods of learning which stress the social aspects of learning with 57% of GenZ preferring to learn via in-person activities with classmates (versus 38% of millennials). These are huge challenges for the sector: how do you grow confidence in online delivery among large groups of educators, and how do you find the right balance for learners? 

Working with partner universities across the world, we are testing solutions to tackle these questions. There is no doubt every institution we work with is different, but the challenges they face are not unique, and I’d like to share some of what we’ve learned so far.

A. Academics need more support than you may anticipate to successfully make the shift to online delivery

The knowledge and skills required to deliver high-quality online courses are noticeably different to those needed to teach in a face-to-face setting. When strategies are simply transferred from face-to-face delivery to online delivery, it often results in a lower quality learning experience. A review of research into online delivery we conducted earlier this year suggests that teachers who instruct online ideally require additional pedagogical training.

Here are some of the key training elements that we would recommend including.

  1. Creating and maintaining a strong presence: online educators have to overcompensate for the lack of physical proximity, ideally through regular and varied verbal communication and the use of non-verbal communication such as emoticons. 
  2. Promoting reflection and communication through quality asynchronous discussion: educators need to monitor the contributions from each learner and facilitate on-topic conversations. In the current situation, there’s a danger that learners are asked to take part in a lot of synchronous learning, which puts additional pressure on both learners and educators. 
  3. Setting clear expectations for the course: educators should clarify expectations for communication inside and outside of the classroom and whether students will be held accountable for participation in any way. In this age of rapid response, educators should set out their response times to students’ questions.
  4. Upskilling technical competencies and building confidence: both basic computer skills and familiarity with the platform the courses are being delivered on are essential. While technical support services will likely be available for students, educators should be prepared to triage technical challenges and signpost to support resources. They need to remain flexible and plan effectively for technology failures. 
  5. Understanding accessibility requirements: so that content in the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is in accessible formats (as a minimum, video and audio should have transcripts and/or closed captions and downloadable documents should be in formats that can be adjusted by the user).

B. Don’t underestimate the importance of building inclusive online communities at course level

In order to satisfy the need for the social aspects of learning, it’s critical to develop an online community for learners. Students in an online environment are not as likely as students in a traditional classroom to develop relationships organically with their peers when they are separated by geography and in many cases by time. This means that educators have to work harder to create opportunities specifically focused on developing a sense of community. The virtual environment that many learners find themselves in will be unfamiliar and could feel isolating to some. It has been shown that online learner motivation is related to the amount of interaction with their educators and the level of enthusiasm they convey. Having a personalised presence and modelling the kind of community culture they would like students to adopt helps educators to build community. Research suggests that students who consider themselves part of a learning community are less likely to drop out of the course. 

C. Broaden out your ‘online campus’

With increased scrutiny on widening participation in universities, access to support services is already a major focus. However, challenges arise when students are studying remotely, potentially on different time zones and are in need of support in real time, be it academic or pastoral. Wellbeing and mental health is an area where support has grown significantly in the UK, but in most cases it has not transitioned online, so students studying remotely are not able to access the on-campus resources. We see the same in areas such as academic skills, finance, and careers. The answer is not necessarily to replicate the exact support and provision available on campus, or to offer piecemeal online offerings. Ideally a realistic alternative should be developed that suits the needs of online students and offers them an equivalence of support. 

Given current time constraints, universities could consider working with partner universities around the world, utilising local in-country support services or outsourcing part of these services to organisations which can provide a round the clock service.  

D. Review your marketing and recruitment strategy in light of getting the points above right

Face-to-face learning feels tangible and easy to predict. Even if prospective students can’t physically go to an open day and experience the university for themselves they can usually take a virtual tour. If some or all of your course is delivered online, how can you reassure students that the online experience will be high quality? How do you make them aware of the wider university resources that will be available to them when they study with you? Consider what opportunities you can give online students to get more comfortable with the online learning environment before they start. Things like accessing the VLE before students commit to taking the course, offering virtual open days and webinars to meet the academics and current students and building up case studies and testimonials can make a huge difference to your ability to recruit students to online learning. As universities find a new normal, it’s likely that the stakes will change so finding new ways to differentiate will be critical. 

Our experience of working in online learning has given us a healthy appreciation of the challenges and pitfalls of delivering in this way, but we have also built a greater awareness of the opportunity this represents for the sector.  If universities can continue to find ways to deliver high-quality education flexibly, while maintaining the elements of community and participation which are so critical to the higher education experience, then I strongly believe that the sector can not only survive this crisis, but will find ways to innovate and connect with new learners. 

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