The impact of COVID-19 has been felt throughout the education sector, not least in universities, which are juggling a swift move to online delivery with dwindling budgets and uncertainty about how lockdown might be eased in the coming weeks and months.
As universities start to consider reopening campuses in September, and how online learning will fit into the new landscape, thinking about pedagogy and digital strategy will be important.
A good place to start could be making a clear distinction between online delivery and true online learning. This can help enable institutions to use the technology at their disposal to improve the student experience.
Online learning isn’t just a matter of translating established techniques onto new platforms without altering delivery – it requires real transformation. Where institutions are already modifying their pedagogies and methods of delivery for online learning, they report good engagement from learners1.
But translation is simple; transformation demands an adjustment in thinking. For example, if a class usually happens in the form of a 60-minute lecture, when shifting to online delivery, the lecture could be split up into different sections with activities throughout the day, or even throughout the week. Digital technology allows us to break free of the 9-5 mentality.
The flexibility enabled by this technology demonstrates that much can be done with approaches such as asynchronous learning. This is of particular importance for students who may be finding remote learning a strain.
Through the pandemic, many have been forced into spaces that may not always be conducive to study. Some won’t have the bandwidth they need, or may have conflicting responsibilities that mean they can’t sit down for an hour uninterrupted to attend a lecture. This is where the agility of asynchronous learning comes into its own.
University College of Estate Management (UCEM) is an example of an institution that has successfully transformed its delivery. Over the last four or five years, UCEM has transitioned to be 100% online, and in doing so has focused on developing its pedagogical approaches for an online environment and building programmes to allow for flexibility of learning. Ruth Grindey, director of development at UCEM, says:
“A lot of our students come to us as career-jumpers, when they’ve been in industry and want a qualification or as apprentices. Many are studying part-time and have very busy lives. We are very mindful of their circumstances, and we take all this into consideration when designing learning programmes. Digital technology allows us to provide this flexibility.”
But as Ruth also says, online delivery tools need to be intuitive, otherwise they can act as a barrier to learning. She says:
“Nobody taught you to use Amazon. And that’s how our learning should be. A lot of the work we’ve been doing as part of our transformation has been centred on being intuitive, obvious, and consistent.”
The different methods of delivery afforded by technology also allow for varying approaches by different courses, departments, and tutors. For example, a maths lecture is very different to a humanities lecture, which is very different to a chemistry lecture, or a creative arts lecture. This is true whether classes are taught in-person or online.
It may be useful here, then, to question what tools might create effective online learning experiences that reflect different students’ needs, considering the kind of space they have access to, the subject they’re studying, the size of the cohort, and so on. For instance, at UCEM, approaches differ depending on which module is being taught, to ensure teaching and delivery is specific to each cohort’s needs.
Taking advantage of digital tools and evaluating pedagogies mean online learning doesn’t have to be a poor experience. When experiences and delivery are transformed, rather than translated, digital technology can facilitate positive change, supporting institutions, staff and students as they make the most of unforeseen circumstances.
Looking towards a post-coronavirus future for the HE sector, Jisc is partnering with UUK, Advance HE and Emerge Education in a research programme that will produce a roadmap to tech-enabled learning and teaching from 2021/22 and beyond. More information on the project is available here.
- 1 van Ameijde, J; Weller, M and Cross, S; Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, vol 6, issue 2, (2018) pp. 41-50