July 13, 2022
Is online learning working for our students?

Until the early part of this decade, the idea of online learning was reserved for candidates at The Open University and a handful of other UK-based HEIs that had started offering some courses via online delivery. An updated version of distance learning or learning by correspondence, those courses were designed with one thing in mind – the student would be learning online.

Consequently, materials were developed to be digested and consumed using technological innovations and tools to ensure student success. Reading materials were made available, online collaboration spaces were created and video, audio and podcast content were added to the traditional learning tools.

Staff involved in delivering these online-focussed courses were trained to deliver to their audiences through synchronous online tutorials and asynchronous message boards, short quizzes, videos and padlets. 

But then, in March 2020 the world was turned upside down and as we all know, programme leaders had to react to be able to support their students. Learning and teaching was moved online overnight, with no time for consideration to be given to how, what, and when content was being delivered in this new format.

Staff dug deep, upskilled and performed a herculean effort to create course content for the online world. They swapped their chalk and blackboard pens for online whiteboard and video calls. They went from teaching a lecture theatre of 200 smiling/puzzled/studious faces, to often delivering their lectures from their spare bedroom to a sea of turned off cameras and blank screens. 

For the students, they too had to adapt quickly, and two years on from this overnight change to the face of course content, we’ve spoken to three students from UK HEIs about their experiences with online learning to find out how their experiences have gone and what we can learn from their perspectives.

Lucy studied an online masters degree during the pandemic while living abroad. She opted for a 100% online course delivered by a Plate Glass University that gave her a solid qualification while giving her the option to study while living and working overseas.

“The course was designed for us to learn online so there was lots of interactive, small group work that we did using video conferencing, as well as tutorials and 1:1s with academic staff via Teams. 

It worked really well, on the whole, with most people being engaged in the course. The fact it was solely delivered online meant there was a really wide range of people and perspectives, so I think I learned as much from them as I did from the formal lectures and reading. 

I’m not sure I would have got such a rich experience if I’d attended in person, so for me the online option worked really well and I would certainly recommend it to others, particularly at a Masters level.”

Harrison is studying for a degree in Biomedical Science. Even though social distancing restrictions have lifted, some classes are still being delivered online using Microsoft Teams. He said: “We had sorely missed the opportunities for hands-on experience in a lab. Those aspects couldn’t be replicated online and theory only gets you so far when it comes to learning the practical elements in a controlled environment. Some students who had become used to learning from home found it took extra planning and organisation skills to get back into the routine of in-person classes on campus.

“We were encouraged to start a student-only WhatsApp group and this gave us a separate safe space to ask questions, clarify any doubts we had, and consolidate feedback that could be shared with teaching staff where we had concerns about how a module was progressing. The teaching staff worked incredibly hard to help us manage the transition between online and in-person learning, even sending us encouraging notes and exam results on the weekends to keep us motivated.

As a neurodiverse learner I find it challenging to attend class remotely. Student support services and facilitation from the lecturers helped me to find different ways to engage with the learning material so that I didn’t feel isolated and could interact with the rest of my class during lessons – but this is a particular skill institutions can’t take for granted when it comes to their staff.”

Also during the pandemic, Dan undertook an MBA at a Russell Group university, and while it was an online qualification, the cohort had the option to attend some modules on campus. Dan said, “The online elements were created specifically for online learning, so lots of small chapters full of video and interactive content as well as group discussions around texts we had to read. Engaging in live and recorded lectures then discussing these with the cohort really cemented learning.

“The intensive week sessions on campus gave us a different opportunity to further expand on ideas and discuss them as a class. I don’t think this was replicated all that well online as it really takes a strong facilitator and a willing student body to make that kind of interaction work well virtually, so I’m strongly in favour of the hybrid model.”

Despite only being a small sample of the many 100,000s of UK students who have now experienced online teaching and learning, the key insight from these students is that staff make the biggest difference to their online experience. Whether this is in the content and consideration they’ve given to the programme design, or the fact that they have continued to support students and their learning preferences in an online environment, it is those actions that have made the difference.

It’s therefore important that we consider how best we can support teaching and learning staff with the right tools, skills and support to be able to deliver online as we search for the future of online delivery in our institutions. While this may seem like an obvious conclusion, it is usually the technology that gets the big ticket investment, not the people who are responsible for making it work.

We understand these challenges, and at LearningMate, we specialise in instructional design that supports both staff and students. We can work with you and your teams to find the right way to digitise your content, and redesign, and redefine, what online learning looks like, and feels like, for you and your institution. We can then support you as you make the transition to online or hybrid delivery to ensure your teaching team is equipped to deliver the very best online lessons for them and your students.

For more information, contact us at contactuk@learningmate.com or check out our website at: https://uk.learningmate.com/.

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