Provides guidance, resources and case studies around the use of technologies to support online courses and distance learning programmes.
This content was archived in July 2021
About this guide
Most institutions use technologies to make their courses more engaging and improve access to learning for students. As new technologies have become more reliable, viable and sometimes more affordable, they’ve brought exciting opportunities to reconsider how we teach, engage with or involve learners in different ways.
Online learning offers institutions a way to take advantage of these opportunities, either for large scale distance learning courses or as an element of existing face-to-face courses.
This guide considers a range of factors that contribute to ongoing capacity for online learning provision. It offers guidance, resources and case studies to support the development and use of technologies to support online courses and distance learning programmes.
We also consider barriers and highlight actions you can take, illustrated with examples from institutions that have developed useful approaches to overcome them.
Your institution will need to consider some fundamental questions to assess how they can use and integrate a range of technologies to support online learning. Throughout the guide, we highlight these questions and offer some ideas and examples.
Use our checklist (Word docx) which highlights key questions you may be considering for online learning provision. Your institution may be planning to adopt new models of online or distance learning or may be integrating online learning into existing courses. This checklist can be useful for both scenarios.
The checklist provides groups of related questions that could be considered by teams, committees or individuals. Some of the questions require institution-wide consideration, whilst others may also need to be considered at a departmental or course team level. The checklist includes strategic and operational aspects as well as more specific questions for individual courses, modules or learning activities.
The guide is part of a series around the development and provision of online learning:
Scaling up online learning focuses on institutional aspects and considers demand and market intelligence, business models and strategic planning, and operations and procedures
Presenting lectures by video, much as it might seem a technological advance in teaching and learning, is still a traditional way to teach. It’s didactic and uses new technology to simply ‘deliver’ content.
New technologies offer exciting opportunities to reconsider how we teach, engage with or involve students in online activities.
Building digital capability
Social networking technologies are freely available and widely used, and offer accessible tools for online content and classes. But they can also present significant challenges for your institution - how to integrate them and provide support.
Online learners can access learning materials and activities at their own convenience, studying where and when it suits them. However it can be difficult to provide technical support when things go wrong and, despite the presence of mobile devices, not all students own them.
Staff and students may not have the necessary skills to use these effectively in a learning context. One of the key issues is building digital capability for staff and students to use technologies and services effectively and ensuring that this enhances the learning experience.
Simulations and virtual reality for medical education
Collaborative multimedia content development and sharing services
Mobile devices for field trips
Blogging and peer networking tools to expand feedback opportunities
Open educational resources
Open technologies and open badging
Many of these examples support just-in-time, on-demand learning, but they also bring challenges around ownership, licensing, standards, integration, management, support, costing services, staff roles, staff and student skills, curriculum change and student expectations. All of these need careful consideration.
Adapting to change
Technological development never stands still, and keeping up with the pace and pressure is challenging, particularly when technologies can disrupt traditional industries and professions.
Institutions need to educate future professionals to embrace and adapt to these ‘disruptive changes’, and that will be more important than teaching them to use one particular technology or another.
Identifying employers needs
Teaching to an old industry model will not give learners the skills they need to find employment. At the very least, your institution needs to engage with industry, identify what kinds of professionals they need now, and start a dialogue about what they anticipate they’ll need in future.
Future horizon reports and discussions are interesting to follow, and are popular in technology, but in practice these are difficult to incorporate into course planning, which can take a long time to complete. They can form part of your institution’s market intelligence.
What you can do
Institutions are reluctant to adopt new technologies
Engage senior management and describe the benefits
Develop strategies and policies that support and allow agile responses and innovative approaches
Identify good examples from within the institution, or from other institutions.
Choosing appropriate technologies
When you’re planning online courses, the first thing you’ll need to consider is the type of technologies your institution can provide.
One of the benefits of using institutional technologies is that central services are already set up to help staff and students with training and technical support, although these may need adapting for online learning.
Your institution may have already invested in new technologies because they support a number of functions, including data management, recording student activity and achievement, and compliance with legal requirements.
Importantly, these technologies may also have been chosen and implemented to support campus-based courses. Teaching departments may be under some pressure to use them to support online learning too.
It may be difficult to use some institutional technologies in an online context without extending student support activities, for example across time zones or to cover out of office hours. Decisions relating to curriculum design may conflict with existing policies and services that support institutional technologies.
For example, online students or industry professionals may not be able to easily access institutional technologies requiring authentication.
Institutional technologies for online learning and any associated content also belong to the institution. This can be a problem because students may not be able to access their work once they have finished their course.
This is a particular problem for e-portfolio systems and alumni professional development portfolios. Your institution will need to strike a balance between the potential costs and benefits of adapting existing policies, technical systems and support services.
Plymouth University, for example, made several adaptations to their systems to create a seamless digital learning environment1.
Adopting a strategic approach
When implementing online learning it is important to adopt a strategic approach to IT developments. Enterprise architecture (EA) offers an approach to help senior managers achieve business and organisational change. EA offers a way to record and understand how the various systems, processes, people and operational mechanisms of an institution work as a whole.
Scaling up online learning offers a perfect opportunity for institutions to use EA to identify strengths and gaps. This kind of approach also allows for consideration of resource implications in terms of cost and human resources.
For online learning, the “cloud” offers a shared pool of configurable computing resources (eg, networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can offer a range of benefits. Our cloud computing guide highlights the potential benefits of the cloud for educational institutions.
It can support them to:
Make new services available and adopt them quickly to allow institutions to respond to user needs in an agile way
Provide flexible, on-demand services any time, any place, any device
Reduce cost, and benefit from shared services
Reduce energy consumption.
It also considers some of the risks associated with cloud computing.
Integrating external tools with existing institutional technologies
There are plenty of web-based and mobile technologies your institution can use to support online learning.
This kind of approach has both advantages and disadvantages. We recommend your institution weighs up the risks and benefits and puts systems in place to manage any ongoing risk.
Some open source tools for content creation (eg, Xerte toolkits) or management (eg, Moodle) can be internally hosted within the organisation giving enhanced benefits and minimised risks.
One advantage of adopting external software or services is that they are, or appear to be, free for the institution and students to use.
In reality, they are likely to require some level of support and staff may even require more support during initial stages.
Some start-up services are initially free and then implement a charged service once they are established. Many offer a free basic service but charge for additional elements such as management or tracking features, which educators will want to use.
A significant risk associated with using external services is that they cease to operate or exist in the middle of a course. It’s therefore important to have a contingency plan, with alternative services to turn to if you need to preserve and manage any content made in the defunct system.
Some students may be better using certain external technologies and services than staff, which can make staff feel insecure, but this isn’t true for all students. Students who use technology extensively for social or leisure purposes may not be able to use it well for learning.
You will need to support learners in using a course or your institution’s preferred technologies, but could offer clear guidance around which specific technologies it will or won’t support.
Including digital literacy skills within the curriculum is one way to ensure that learners develop the skills they need.
Establishing a self-help or peer support approach can also be useful, and can even be used to create and share tutorials. But teaching staff will need to relinquish some control of teaching and learning to allow this to work.
The digital storytelling course (ds106) in the US1 is a great example of this peer-support approach working well, as it encourages participants to both create their own assignments and develop tutorials to help others do them.
Evaluating suitable technologies
IT support services and other central services might object to using external technologies. This reluctance can leave teaching staff having to provide technical as well as teaching support. Some staff and departments may be able to do this, and to test out various technologies to see if they suit their courses.
Evaluating these activities and feeding back to senior managers helps to make the case for the institution to accept and support these technologies on a wider scale.
Case study - using Wordpress to support online open classes
The University of Coventry’s media department2 used WordPress blogs to support online open classes. The external online platform allowed staff to manage content from both registered and open students, as well as from external contributors.
The marketing department was initially concerned about not using the institutional web services, but the media team recorded the level of activity on the WordPress blog and the figures spoke for themselves. The volume of traffic provided tangible evidence that the sites attracted visitors from around the world, raising the profile of the university.
Usability and reliability
Any technology or services your institution uses (or considers) should allow users to achieve their goals quickly with minimum effort or errors, and provide an acceptable ‘user experience’
We recommend testing the usability, reliability and user experience of institutional technologies early on in implementation. Test again once the technology is up and running by assessing ongoing feedback and analysing patterns of use.
We recommend central services get involved with this process and take responsibility for assessing externally provided technologies to ensure new systems are usable as they can be.
If this responsibility falls to individual teachers or department technical support staff they may need further training.
What you can do
Central or departmental IT support teams reluctant to support non-institutional technologies.
Include innovative use of technologies in institutional strategies and policies
Develop mechanisms and procedures to include all the right people in making decisions about non-institutional technologies
Provide evaluation data from initiatives within the institution, or from other institutions.
Staff lack the expertise to use new technologies in a teaching and learning context.
Provide staff training and support
Offer staff mentoring.
Students lack the skills to integrate non-institutional technologies into their learning.
Incorporate digital literacies into the curriculum
Include digital storytelling and digital identity in the curriculum
It can be trickier for institutions to allow staff to use their own technologies to access institutional systems than it is to allow students. After all, staff are likely to have access to confidential or personal data.
Institutions need to have clear staff policies and guidelines, setting out what their staff can access and what support is, or isn’t, available for the various technologies they might want to use.
Increasingly, students expect to access learning activities and content from their own devices. The benefits to learners are obvious - it enables them to access these from home, work, placements or field work.
This approach also appears to support flexible learning, and strategies to widen participation.
Equality of access
Designing a course or class around students using their own technologies can raise issues of equity and access. Poorer students may not be able to afford up-to-date devices, and students living in areas where mobile signals are very weak or non-existent are potentially at a disadvantage.
Institutions need to consider how they can provide an equitable experience, and they may need to provide alternative routes into either content or learning activities.
Keeping information secure
Online students might well expect that all the information and services available on campus will automatically be available to them online or via their mobile device, including personal information such as grades. This presents a challenge, as institutions do need to keep their systems and information secure.
As well as information and guidance about this, students may also need help to use their own devices.
It’s likely that online students will access materials and activities through their own devices, so when designing a curriculum, it’s important to realise that content may be accessed by a range of different technologies.
This offers freedom for students to manage their own time, regulate how and when they access online learning and puts control firmly in their own hands. However it can be difficult for staff, who may have to respond to demands for support, and provide learning content in a variety of formats.
Case study - open online collaborative courses
The BYOD4L open online course is an example of this kind of initiative. It now has 12 institutional partners and over 20 volunteer facilitators.
Staff and students work collaboratively on problems and scenarios, using existing tools or creating new resources using the hashtag #BYOD4L, and working within a pedagogical framework for social learning (the 5Cs model, Nerantzi and Beckingham, 2014).
What you can do
Difficulty knowing which technologies and tools students have access to
Carry out a pre-course survey of students to identify if any students do not have appropriate access
Develop contingency plans to support students who may not have access
Problems making campus-based technologies accessible to all course participants
Expand necessary licences or agreements to include off-campus access
Using and managing disruptive technologies
Emerging technologies have the potential to challenge the existing economic, social and political landscape. New technologies can disrupt existing patterns and models of teaching, assessment and support.
Much as ‘disruptive’ has negative connotations; it’s important to note that this disruption can lead to positive change.
People in traditional institutions can find the changes brought about by technological disruption unnerving. They may be concerned about their roles and, ultimately, their jobs.
The process of disruption can be painful as society or an organisation going through it attempts to adjust to the change it brings.
How technologies disrupt
There are many examples of technologies disrupting existing ways of life. This includes the impact of people using their mobile devices to record events as they happen on news media.
Unless media companies accept and adjust their models to embrace this, by including public records of events in their broadcasts, their existence may be threatened.
Case study - educating future photographers
Another example is the impact of digital photography on professional photographers, which highlights that professionals have had to adapt and change their existing models to continue working.
Jonathan also realised that the way we educate future photographers needs to change accordingly. He persuaded the media department at the University of Coventry to transform some of their classes through the use of open technologies and open educational practice1.
Traditionally, educators created learning content and the institution managed curation and long-term storage. Ownership was relatively clear: content developed by academic staff often belonged to the institution, as stipulated in staff contracts.
Institutions should have policies that set out how to manage, archive, store and access teaching and learning content.
Changing approaches to curriculum design
Online learning brings specific challenges to the creation, management and archiving of learning content.
To some extent, VLEs and learning content repositories can be used to store and deliver content as long as participants have full access to campus systems. However, delivery of this content may differ for online learning.
Teachers should consider how they change their pedagogic approach and curriculum design to take advantage of online technologies. This may mean that VLEs and formal learning repositories don't work for new types of content.
There's also a range of technical issues related to producing learning content including formatting, licensing, sharing and metadata. Our guidance on how to make your collection available for teaching and learning includes useful information and examples to illustrate good practice.
Using external web-based technologies and services means that teachers, students and external peers or mentors can create, share and assess online content without the need for institutional authentication.
This kind of approach can support open access to learning activities and content, which defies traditional boundaries around when classes take place and who can contribute.
If your organisation wants to promote content sharing, repurposing and student contributions, it's vital to consider content creation tools. You can provide open source tools to all users with no licence costs and some, like Xerte toolkits, are specifically designed with sharing, collaboration and export feeds in mind.
By contrast, proprietary tools tend to have restrictive licensing and are less likely to be optimised for open content agendas.
Teachers as content facilitators
It also raises a number of questions including:
Who will manage the content
Who owns content by multiple authors
How long to keep the content live and accessible.
There may also be situations where students need or demand closed forums, which can also be possible with some external services.
This is a good illustration of how much teacher roles may change in online learning contexts; where they are no longer the 'expert' producing content, but act as facilitators and curators of content. They may still provide the structure of the learning activities and assessment and can share this responsibility with students and external contributors.
They may also spend quite a bit of time focussing on aggregating and supervising responses. This could compromise their traditional working hours as students can access and take part in learning activities at any time.
What you can do
Difficulties making learning accessible from outside the institution.
Ensure that policies and systems support off-campus provision
Adapt authentication systems as appropriate
Supporting the development and management of learning content outside institutional systems.
Develop policies and mechanisms to facilitate developing and managing learning content outside the institution.
Consider who will provide support, and acknowledge that the roles and activities of teaching staff will change and require support through appropriate mechanisms
Students expect that teachers produce and control learning content, leading to a lack of engagement with a new process where students are expected to contribute and participate.
Incorporate digital literacies around content creation and management into the curriculum.
Incorporate digital storytelling within the curriculum to encourage ownership of content
Encourage the development of a professional digital identity, through networking and sharing technologies for students’ own content.
Using open content
Web-based technologies allow educators to make their learning content accessible to learners and other educators outside their own institution. There are various motivations for sharing learning content in an open way - from top-down institution-wide policy, to individual teachers altruistically sharing with colleagues and open learners.
Our guide to open educational resources describes open content or open educational resources (OER) as small individual assets shared on the web, or larger, packaged and structured resources.
What makes learning resources truly open is the deliberate application of an open license, which sets out who can use the resource and how. Creative Commons licences have had a big impact on making learning materials open, although other open licences exist and may be more appropriate.
One principle of releasing open content is to help students access learning materials no matter where they are geographically to widen participation. Open content can be useful in online learning, too, although there are potential challenges - how to locate, and then adapt, content to suit each context.
Some open content is packaged for a specific audience and isn’t accessible to a global audience, pedagogically or technically.
Student generated content
The marketing and branding potential of open content can present educators with a useful set of benefits to present to senior managers, and may help make the case for online learning. There is great potential to develop exciting learning activities and classes, with students generating, sharing and adapting (or remixing) their own content such as in the digital storytelling course (ds106)1 at the University of Mary Washington in the US.
Online learning wouldn't be possible without the extensive work that’s been done to improve technical standards. This work allows systems to interact, share data and deliver the technologies that underpin learning. The Centre for Educational Technology, Interoperability and Standards (Cetis) are experts on education technology innovation, interoperability and technology standards.
Whilst your IT, learning technology and library services teams need to engage with such standards, most staff and students will benefit from them without having to engage in the detail.
Course advertising, open educational resources, assessment, content management, searching and delivery, and student data through learning analytics are all supported by technical standards, without these standards being visible.
Our report on learning analytics identifies that student data generated through learning analytics is increasingly important. It provides important intelligence (link to penetrating the market section) to help institutions improve student success, retention rates and learning experiences.
Managed approach to student data
Institutions are having to take a more managed approach to measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of student data, and need to consider ethical as well as technical issues.
Data sources tend to be large institutional administration systems such as student information systems, VLEs, attendance records, library systems or IT systems, with data gleaned from log-ins or student surveys.
Online learning presents challenges as student data may no longer be easily managed by your institution. When students interact with and use non-institutional technologies, you still need to track these activities - this can present technical and ethical problems with permissions.
Once you set up systems properly, learning analytics data can provide valuable evidence that a new approach or intervention is having a positive impact on students.
There are some notable examples of institutions adopting comprehensive approaches to learning analytics, including Manchester Metropolitan University1 and the Open University2.
What you can do
Lack of joined-up approaches to technology limits the ability of systems to work together (“interoperability”).
Adopt an institution-wide approach to technological systems to make sure central systems operate efficiently with departmental technologies
Identify policies to support interoperability and ensure that staff have enough knowledge and/or support to make informed choices.
Student data is scattered across multiple technical and administrative systems
Carry out an audit of systems and establish a planned approach to improve data collation, management and sharing
Embed consideration of student data tracking and analysis into all new technological interventions.
It is difficult to gather data from non-institutional sources.
Identify ways to collect data and carry out regular data-gathering activities
Liaise across departments to identify how to feed their data into central systems
Look for technical solutions to manage data collection and gathering.
You can support online learning using a wide range of technologies. These include specifically designed learning technologies or those adopted for use in learning activities.
The same technologies can often be used for both face-to-face and online learning, but they have a central role in an online context.
Presentation and multimedia technologies
Social networking tools
Gaming, simulations and virtual reality technologies
Virtual learning environments (VLEs).
Technologies can help people with disabilities engage with learning in ways that previously weren't possible. Being able to access learning content and activities online can be liberating for people who are housebound, whether for physical or other reasons.
Technology can be a means to broaden and enable equitable access to learning, but isn't necessarily a catch-all solution. Not all students with disabilities will want to access learning in the same way, or will find different technologies or formats accessible or supportive of their particular needs.
If you or your institution develop online courses or classes, you’ll need to take the requirements of students with different needs into account. A good starting point is to consider the content creation tools you currently use with this accessibility checklist and test how accessible they are.
Surprisingly, some of the expensive industry standard tools produce content with significant accessibility barriers whilst open source tools like Xerte toolkits have much higher levels of native accessibility.
Ensuring resources are mobile-friendly is one way of potentially increasing accessibility because many mobile devices have inbuilt assistive technologies like text-to-speech.
Improving student access
In addition to considering how students with disabilities will access, learn with or use online technologies, think about how specialised assistive technologies can improve student access. There is a wide range of commercial and open-source products available with specific functions such as screen readers, spelling aids and on-screen keyboards, as well as software with built-in accessibility features.
Assistive apps for mobile devices are more commonplace with touch-screens proving valuable for a range of needs.
Policies and legal requirements
Your institution is likely to have policies on assistive technologies, for both staff and students and there may be financial student support. It's important to assess how accessible these technologies are in relation to online learning and consider alternatives if non-institutional technologies aren't sufficiently accessible.
The Disability Discrimination Act makes it a legal requirement to provide students with disabilities alternative formats of learning content. Producing content in alternative formats, such as text, audio, video, images, and guiding students through content using headings and formatting, can also help students with different languages or personal preferences.
Supporting Jisc guidance
We have several guides on supporting students with different needs:
Our podcast and accompanying blog post on making resources accessible may also be useful.
Producing alternative formats
Curriculum development and teaching staff may need support in producing different formats, and there are additional cost and time factors to consider.
A central team, with specific expertise in producing a range of formats, and who can make links to the staff with knowledge around disabilities, might be best placed to do this. A good deal of accessibility however can be achieved by choosing an appropriate content creation tool that outputs to accessible formats like HTML5 or EPUB3.
Wherever possible avoid outputs in Flash format because these have very low native accessibility.
Teaching staff can also use accessible open content to provide alternative and additional sources to augment their course materials.
What you can do
Assistive technologies and how they can help students with disabilities, are not well understood.
Involve student disability support staff in curriculum planning
Provide staff awareness and training activities
Ensure that institutional policies include the needs of students with disabilities and that staff have time to properly engage with these.
Lack of time to develop new learning content in a variety of formats.
Provide central support teams to help staff develop alternative formats.
Difficulties in making student-generated content available in accessible formats.
Incorporate accessibility into general digital literacy elements of the curriculum
Create a culture of sharing and remixing of student content so that they produce different formats
Provide additional support to students with disabilities to produce their own content online.
Presentation and multimedia technologies
In online learning contexts, you can use presentation software to deliver lectures, demonstrations, or other support materials.
You can record live sessions allowing people the chance to revisit content if they missed the live session, or when they’re revising.
You can then place the recording online, for students to interact with at any time.
Alternative presentation tools
Some presentation technologies encourage the traditional approach of the 'expert' teacher providing the content and being in control of when and how things are presented. These kinds of tools, such as Microsoft PowerPoint and Apple Keynote, do not aim to be collaborative but can, nonetheless, be used by students to work collaboratively.
Prezi or emaze are examples of a more dynamic presentation tool. Presentations in different formats can be shared through social networking services like SlideShare and blogs, and you can upload video and audio to YouTube and Vimeo.
Some open source products like Xerte toolkits can combine a range of benefits allowing you to create presentational slides alongside quizzes, videos or embedded collaboration tools like Padlet, Google documents or other online services.
Presenting live content
Webinar software offers ways to present content in a live context, and incorporate video, chat, interactive whiteboards and webtours. You can record these and give them to non-attendees. Webinars can feel quite intimate and work well for small numbers of people, but can also be open to much larger groups.
Your institution may have already invested in webinar software and have guides on how to use it.
Graphics and more complex forms of media
Online learning can incorporate a range of content, from more traditional material such as text, graphics, screencasts and diagrams which are relatively easy to produce. More complex forms of media such as audio, video, timelines, and animations may help to engage students and get them interacting with the materials.
Individual teachers or central services can produce materials in these various formats, but whoever produces the content will need appropriate skills, resources and preparation time. If any materials are made freely available on the web, you must also consider branding and licensing; you will need incorporate this into your institutional policies.
Using open software
The increasing availability of free open software to develop multimedia content, such as GIMP (image manipulation) and Audacity (digital audio editor) has transformed opportunities for students to present their own content in engaging and imaginative ways.
Other open source tools like Xerte toolkits, Mahara and Moodle allow standalone multimedia like images, video and audio to be easily embedded into resources alongside quizzes and explanations. Make sure that staff creating multimedia also summarise the key teaching points that the resources illustrate so they don’t create inadvertent barriers for vision or hearing impaired students.
Both staff and students can use these tools to create, share and remix a wide range of formats. Students can also contribute up-to-date tutorials and guidance on these technologies for other students.
In an open class on digital storytelling at University of Mary Washington in the US, students contributed a range of tutorials, assignment briefs and guidance for other students on open blogs. The course has built an ongoing collection of these, all of which are given an open licence, such as this example on making videos.1
Creating and sharing multimedia
Animations in particular can present complex information in an engaging way, and are often used in engineering and the natural sciences to demonstrate systems and mechanisms. They can also capture and simulate personal interactions, such as an example from Manchester Metropolitan University, who used GoAnimate with students on social care placements.2
Multimedia content is becoming easier to create and share through a range of presentation methods and is a key component of online learning. We recommend that your institution develops clear policies for staff to explain how to produce content and adopt them during learning activities.
Staff need appropriate support and training around the pedagogic benefits, technical capabilities and legal aspects of the technologies that your institution adopts.
What you can do
Staff find it difficult to adapt existing content into new formats.
Provide staff engagement and development activities
Adopt institutional approaches and centralised production support services.
Costs of creating more interactive content.
Fund centralised support teams to generate cost-effective content
Consider developing content for use across more than one course or subject discipline
Adopt approaches for student developed content and create banks for future courses
Use template driven tools (for example Xerte toolkits) that allow non-specialist staff with minimal IT skills to create interactive content.
Online social networking tools and services support communication, collaboration and sharing in ways that have transformed how people interact with family, friends, co-workers, commercial and government organisations. It's now ubiquitous and has already had a significant impact on learning and teaching.
Connected mobile devices have given people access to, and even some control over these networks, as new ways of sharing information and content have democratised ownership of information and knowledge.
Despite all of this, there are still people who are unable to take advantage of these technologies through lack of empowerment, poverty, access or inclination.
Enhancing student interaction and learning
Educational institutions have been using web-based technologies and social networking technology such as email for years. Increasingly, they provide students with administrative information, such as timetables, reminders and requests for information.
Many educators have already adopted social networking technologies to support learning and teaching through the use of wikis, blogs and specific services such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, and through content sharing sites such as Flickr and Pinterest. These technologies and services can support face-to-face learning as well as online learning, but their adoption is likely to enhance online learning most.
In particular, these tools support a ‘connectivist’ approach to teaching and learning, where social networking and connecting form an integral part of student interactions.
Social networking technologies can be challenging for institutions for all the same reasons as any non-institutionally controlled technology. However, the educational benefits of these technologies may be easier to articulate due to their worldwide acceptance and use, and they can be integrated into existing curricula without major change or re-validation.
Our guide to collaborative online tools describes how these can help students develop an online presence and begin to create a professional identity, to start building professional networks and online portfolios, and to understand how social networking supports real professional practice.
One example highlights how the University of Oxford used Facebook and Storify to link theory and practice. 1
These technologies can be used to extend the relationships that students may normally have; they enable input from previous students and external professionals and experts outside the institution. This does change the role of course teachers somewhat, and can initially be threatening to those staff and students who are more comfortable with closed, safer spaces.
Consideration should also be given to online safety, but this can be incorporated into digital literacy elements of the course.
Recording activity and evidence gathering
An advantage of social networking technologies is that many of them record activity and this can be mapped and tracked to help educators gather evidence to support their ongoing use or to argue for extended use.
The use of hashtags and keywords/tags can help to both build a brand for the course or class [link to marketing section] and help when using aggregation tools such as Storify, scoop.it and Netvibes.
Courses may become known by their hashtag as in the case of '#ds106' the open digital storytelling class which began at the University of Mary Washington and has spread across institutions worldwide.
The UK undergraduate photography class #Phonar at Coventry University is similarly known, and inspired the University of East Anglia to use Twitter and a hashtag approach for chemistry students.2
The same tools can help academic and other professional staff build their own professional identities and profiles and share learning practice, research and content online. Specialist services such as LinkedIn, and academia.edu are also useful.
What you can do
Central IT services limit or prevent use of social networking software.
Include innovative teaching approaches in strategy and policy
Engage staff in the benefits of use, for learners, institutional marketing and for branding
Identify academic and senior management champions
Gather evidence of benefits through small, measurable pilots.
Staff don’t have the skills to use social networking software to support learning and teaching.
Provide staff engagement and training opportunities
Join free open online courses offered by other academics to practise use in a learning context.
Difficulties with managing content generated through social networking.
Use aggregation services to collate and present content
Consider alternative services as back up.
Students may struggle to use personal technologies and services effectively in an educational context.
Highlight the benefits of creating a 'professional' digital identity
Incorporate this within digital literacy elements of the course or class.
2 Snapping and tweeting from the chemistry lab - digitalstudent.jiscinvolve.org/wp/files/2015/01/DS28-Snapping-and-tweeting-from-the-chemistry-lab.pdf
Using smartphones, tablets, net books, and laptops can offer extremely flexible access to online learning for students on the move.
Although ownership of mobile devices is very widespread, it’s difficult to know how much students will use their devices to access learning, or whether this really works for them in practice.
As mobile device models and software are updated so often, it can be very difficult to estimate what functions students may have access to.
In reality, it's likely that students will use a range of devices depending on where they are or what work they’re doing. At the very least, mobile devices offer a way for students to manage their learning with calendars or planning apps. Some institutions use these to send emails and text notices.
Students may download learning content onto mobile devices to engage with while travelling, in work breaks, during leisure time or anywhere they choose. Students can also access web-based content on mobile devices if they have access to a mobile signal and/or wifi. However, a number of areas of the UK still have no, or only intermittent, access to a mobile signal.
Older students and disabled users may find it particularly challenging to use touch screens, small buttons or to navigate on such small screens.
New approaches to learning
Mobile devices present opportunities for new approaches to learning, but not all staff may be aware of this potential. Staff may also feel they don’t have the knowledge or time to create learning content specifically for mobile devices, but good web design will at least make sure that any web-based content they do produce will display properly on mobile devices.
In addition, some tools like Xerte toolkits use a simple template driven system to allow staff or students with limited IT skills to create responsive, media rich web pages optimised for mobile phones.
Third party applications
Third-party applications are also available for functions such as mind mapping, simple text entry and assistive technologies. The Higher Education Academy subject centre for education's mobile learning publication1 offers promising examples of institutions using and creating apps for mobile devices to help students aggregate learning content, personalise their learning experience, and support students on placements or in fieldwork situations.
Mobile devices easily support networking and sharing of learning content through social networking sites, so can offer huge benefits to online courses that encourage student generated content, sharing, collaboration and networking.
Our mobile learning guide offers information on institution-wide strategic approaches to adopting mobile learning, pedagogic aspects, and guidance on implementation.
What you can do
Institutions don’t understand how students use mobile devices for learning.
Carry out student surveys
Run projects or pilot schemes to find out how students respond to using mobile devices for learning
Identify ongoing research and projects by other institutions.
Lack of awareness of the potential and benefits of mobile learning.
Increase staff awareness through training events
Look for ideas and inspiration outside the institution.
In games, players need to solve problems, practise skills and respond to feedback.
Pedagogically, gaming and other immersive technologies can offer exciting opportunities for engagement, allowing students to test hypotheses and actions through simulations and accrue credits and feedback along the way.
The term “immersive technologies” often refers to virtual reality, where participants are mentally, emotionally or physically immersed in an artificial environment.
Medicine and nursing, in particular, have made good use of simulation technologies to help students practise on virtual patients, minimising the risks associated with practise on real people.
Online courses can adopt or incorporate aspects of gaming, for example by emulating points, badges and leader boards through ‘open badging.’
This is where online courses offer badges as learners progress through a course, and allow them to display these as achievements (see Mozilla open badging and Badging on OpenLearn by the Open University).
This guide outlines open badges in more detail in the section about online assessment.
Communities and collaborative play
Developing communities and opportunities for collaborative play is another example of a gaming approach to online learning that can be incorporated into learning through social networking technologies.
A key aspect of using gaming and immersive technologies in online learning is to make sure students can access them on their own devices. More and more services and tools are becoming available that enable teachers or learners to create their own games, and they are likely to continue to gain traction as educational devices. For example:
Aris creates mobile learning games using an open-source platform
Zondle and Quia popular and simple quiz-and-game creation and sharing services.
What you can do
Lack of skills within the institution to develop or incorporate games.
Use external developers to design games
Adapt existing technologies to include gaming approaches
Identify ongoing research and projects by other institutions.
Difficulties supporting students using externally provided platforms.
Establish peer support mechanisms between staff, online students and external contributors.
Virtual learning environments (VLE)
Virtual learning environments (VLE's) are now well established in educational institutions as a means to structure, manage and deliver learning activities and content. They are recognised as having strengths in student tracking and managing online assessments.
These integrated tools may be one product (eg, Blackboard, Moodle) or an integrated set of individual, perhaps open-source, tools with additional functions such as e-portfolios.
These centrally managed systems support both campus-based and online courses and have the advantage of:
Potential to present a consistent experience for students and staff
Ability to deliver courses to a large number of students.
They include communication mechanisms to support student dialogue with staff and peers within courses through email, and on bulletin board discussions. They can also offer shared workspaces to support collaboration.
One advantage of using VLEs is that institutions can train all staff to make the most of their particular system. However, VLEs have been criticised for not inspiring innovative curriculum design, or offering flexible ways for learners to engage with content.
Staff can be tempted to simply upload all their existing content, rather than consider how they could use technology to change the design of the curriculum.
In addition to delivering content in a range of formats, students can also submit coursework using VLEs, incorporating assessment and feedback through multiple choice questionnaires. But institutional ownership and control of these platforms can make it difficult to include participants from outside the institution, and they may not link well with social networking or other external technologies and services.
Staff may not easily be able to share their practice outside the institution if it requires authentication, so VLEs can hamper open practice making publicly funded content available.
Some content creation tools (for example Xerte toolkits) get round this problem by sitting outside the VLE and including inbuilt export feeds and public/private sharing options.
VLEs may also limit student co-creation of content and may discourage students from taking control of their own learning. For example, students may not be allowed to create their own discussion boards.
It’s likely that students and staff will work around the VLE when it fails to be flexible enough for their needs, resulting in content being generated and managed outside the system.
The University of Lincoln used open source content creation tools to overcome this problem by developing student-centred approaches to learning.
Personal learning environments
The idea of ‘personal learning environments’ (PLE) has been around since the early VLE systems (the first recorded use of the term was at the Cetis conference in 2004). The concept acknowledges that learners need to create their own learning environment, and allows them to control this.
This idea is particularly relevant for online learning where students may choose which technologies and services are most appropriate to them; this may, of course, include an institutional VLE.
Social networking software, which allows students to take control of their learning experience, offers ways to truly personalise their learning experience.
What you can do
Institutional guidelines on how to use VLEs may restrict innovative curriculum development.
Lobby to use advanced features
Try to use VLEs and external technologies in combination.
External participants, such as open students or professional experts, may not be able to access the VLE.
Try to get external log-ins in bulk, rather than for individuals.
Our e-portfolios guide defines them as a range of digital artefacts, created and collected by students as a record of their learning experiences and achievements.
Both the process and the resulting collection offer opportunities for students to reflect and record their thoughts, and to decide which elements they might choose to share with tutors, peers, potential employers and the wider public.
Ideally, e-portfolios should include both formal and informal learning and be owned and managed by the learner. They are equally appropriate for both campus-based and online students, although support mechanisms and guidance may need to be adapted for online students.
Encouraging students to create and maintain e-portfolios can help an institution achieve its aims for lifelong learning and employability of its learners. E-portfolios can also help students to become reflective learners and support them to develop a professional identity. They can make the administration of records and assessment easier, highlighting which courses students have engaged with.
E-portfolios can be a critical tool to maintain and develop relationships with alumni.
Institutions can find it difficult to decide how to implement e-portfolios. Students may want ownership and personalisation, but this needs to be balanced with the need for an institutional system with all of the benefits of central support, security and ongoing storage.
An institutional approach can encourage take-up, but may be difficult to adapt for different subject disciplines.
Students can choose when and where to undertake assessments
More efficient management of assignment submissions, marking and moderation
Better storage and archiving of student attainment records
Ability to improve existing “human” or solely paper-based methods of marking.
Social networking tools
Social networking tools offer particularly useful ways to provide formative assessment to online students. They facilitate online feedback, and can be used to involve more people, such as other students, online peers and industry or professional experts, in the process.
Multiple choice questionnaires (MCQ's) and online quizzes or polls can offer immediate feedback help students assess specific areas of learning, following small chunks of learning activities. These are used extensively in MOOCs after video presentations to assess how much information students have retained, and may contribute towards final certification.
Using online technologies for accreditation raises many issues for institutions around authentication and validation and there can be reluctance to link these to formal accreditation. Online open badging offers a way of 'soft-certification' that takes lessons from gaming. It provides regular feedback and rewards for each level attained and presents the user with a visual symbol (badge) of their attainment.
They can then share this achievement with others, either on a personal or institutional dashboard, or by incorporating it into a formal e-portfolio.
Our blog post identifies some interesting examples and highlights places to get more information about implementing open badging.
Managing open badge systems
To overcome concerns about incorporating badging, we recommend your institution adopts an institution-wide approach to ensure proper management of the system's operational and technical aspects.
The Open University recently went through this process and are now piloting open badging on their informal OpenLearn courses.1 Using specific centrally managed assessment technologies (such as MCQs and quizzes in a VLE system) provides management information and data that can be linked to wider institutional systems.
This is a concern for educational institutions and many routinely use plagiarism prevention software such as Turnitin, which offers a means for both staff and students to check their assignments. An open online mailing list allows institutions to share and discuss information and issues around plagiarism.
Validation and authentication
Any mechanisms your institution uses for assessment and feedback need to be both technologically accessible and pedagogically relevant for online students to ensure equity between online and campus-based students.
Validation and authentication present the biggest challenge in online learning but there are systems and mechanisms that can validate the identity of people doing assessments. See our guide to making assessments more accessible.
Presenting assessment results raises some potential problems when students are working with e-portfolios, especially as there is an increasing demand to show a student’s development through their course rather than simply stored feedback within each module of learning.
This is particularly challenging if they use non-institutional technologies for feedback and assessment.
Policy and processes
Technologies present opportunities for your institution to reconsider assessment practices, but these need a clear policy and processes to ensure that you adopt change coherently.
Our guide to changing assessment and feedback practice shows how to approach large-scale change in assessment and feedback practice using technology. Staff will need guidance and support to use technologies effectively for assessment. Manchester Metropolitan University produced ideas for how their staff can use technology to support specific teaching and assessment approaches 2 .
What you can do
Authentication and validation of online students presents risks
Adopt soft-certification approaches that present minimum risk
Use external exam centres, or partner with other institutions
Use a combination of technologies, such as webcams and authentication sign-ins, to support summative assessment.
Adapting to pedagogic approaches and assessment can be difficult
Instigate an institution-wide approach, properly supported by strategy and policy
Offer change management support
Provide staff engagement and development activities
Online courses are perceived to have lower value accreditation
Ensure any online assessment conforms to appropriate quality requirements
You can use a wide range of technologies to support online learning. Your institution needs to consider several factors before deciding which technologies to use and it's advisable to adopt a strategic approach, linking technology choices to operational and technical considerations, curriculum design and identified student needs.
Different technologies offer specific benefits and bring their own constraints and challenges. All of this must be balanced against the preferred pedagogic approaches and levels of support that your institution can offer teaching staff and students.
A holistic approach
Selecting, adapting and integrating technologies for online learning should not be done in isolation.
We recommend that you look at our accompanying guide, scaling up online learning which offers a strategic view of different models and the implications of implementing online learning at an institutional level.