Online learning: From disruption to transformation

  • 18/09/2020
  • 04:28
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Many transformations have arisen from the disruption of the higher education sector due to the pandemic. At 20%, the size of the UK’s foreign student body is second only to the U.S., and COVID-19 has had a huge impact on its university registrations.

Higher education establishments have been forced to experiment with hybrid course models – both online and campus-based – and the results are shaping the future of university-level education.

In the UK, the ongoing debates over best practices and the overall political landscape have shed light on pandemic-related challenges. Over 15.5 million UK students have had their studies disrupted, which has led to a watershed moment for education leaders and institutes alike. In a world of accelerated digital innovation and labour market transformation, this offers a vantage point for organisations to understand how they should adapt to the new normal.

Adaptive infrastructure

UK universities have had their online learning teaching and assessment (LTA) facilities put to the test. Institutions who already had robust digital education delivery systems required less adjustment, and this has shone a favourable spotlight on the Open University. In this context, the well-established distance learning organisation is still a market leader. Organisations in all sectors can learn from their example, especially when combined with advanced data collection techniques. When artificial intelligence (AI) data collection algorithms are linked to the use of e-learning, organisations are more likely to stay competitive. This is due to the higher level of dynamism in the content offered, which adapts to the needs of the educational and vocational landscape.

Structuring online course delivery with flexibility in mind is the best way to face the uncertainties created by COVID-19. Again, a large number of financial losses in the higher education sector have been caused by the fall in tuition fee income from international students. In the UK, this could amount to £4.3 billion by the end of 2020, including additional pandemic-related losses. Solutions to these challenges include lifelong learning loans that facilitate enrolment in higher education courses that are below degree level. Although this is only a recommendation from the Auger review – it has yet to be adopted – it could help people who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 to reskill.

Further solutions to pandemic-related challenges include:

  • Delaying start dates for certain courses until the next semester
  • Changing registration and application deadlines for student intakes
  • Changing offer acceptance deadlines for future intakes
  • Deferring certain offers until 2021
  • Conducting English language tests in-house (instead of external assessors)

As universities adapt to this period of change, particular institutes lead the way. The University of Edinburgh, which consistently ranks as one of the world’s top higher education providers, knows that staff welfare is at the epicentre of every challenge. Their solutions are based on consistency balanced with financial responsibility. Academic promotions and associated pay increases have continued, along with one-off payments that acknowledge essential workers who have been required onsite during high levels of positive COVID-19 reports. These monetary decisions have helped to maintain the foundation of the university’s workforce, instead of the cuts that have led to despondency in other organisations.

Online restructuring

Lessons in technology-enhanced learning have been learnt during the UK’s lockdown. Kyungmee Lee, a lecturer from Lancaster University, explains that a common pitfall occurs if face-to-face lectures are not redesigned specifically for the online environment. Longer lectures that are intended to be projected onto a large screen often don’t translate well on laptops or smaller handheld devices. Another issue is live streaming during normal class hours which can leave students in different time zones unable to ask questions and interact.

These issues have led to increasing technical difficulties, which have created extra work hours, pressure, and complaints. The University of Cambridge has set a new precedent in this area by announcing that all of their lectures will be online for the next academic year (2020-2021). They’re leading in online higher education innovation by committing to this timeline which will allow them to structure all of their courses within the virtual environment. It will enable them to draw on what has and hasn’t worked and liaise with programmers, instructional designers and illustrators to formulate online-orientated curricula.

Future developments

Blended learning provides a way for universities to use both VLEs and traditional on-campus lectures. The University of London’s Christina Howell-Richardson (PGC Learning and Teaching in Higher Education tutor) expands on how this will happen. As already mentioned, the key challenges for online learning link to the technology, content, and costs of the infrastructural redesign. The key will be in striking the right balance between face-to-face and online learning.

First, the practical reality of assessment and knowledge transfer must be faced. Certain assessments like the objective structured clinical examination (OSCE) in nurse education, will be challenging – if not impossible – to hold completely online. This is due to the complex and varied nature of the settings and practical clinical skills that are involved.

This leads us to the need for investment in the retraining of both educators and students in online learning approaches. Additional support from educational developers is essential, and the demand for talent in this sector will grow as their expertise is required to help universities adopt new types of digital learning environment. There is also the issue of access. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) found that in 2019 even though 97% of the world’s population have some type of internet availability, only 53.6% are connected. For higher education online learning to be successful, these global logistical issues must be resolved.

New normal trends

We know that two patterns will continue in the future: 1) due to the disruption in employment levels as well as the growing skills gap, there will be a higher level of older students applying for higher education courses and seeking career changes, and 2) the number of international students in other countries attending on-campus lectures and assessments will be reduced.

Although online learning will never be able to replace the benefits of on-campus lectures completely, the ‘buy-build’ strategy of institutes like The University of Edinburgh provides an excellent response to current challenges. The buy-build strategy of acquiring a platform from a company with advanced expertise before building on it suits the demands of an everchanging e-learning market. For example, Moodle is the most popular learning management systems (LMS) in the world, but higher education institutions often wish to tailor the features to suit their own organisation.

University College London (UCL)

UCL have one of the most comprehensive Moodle support teams in the world, which has led them to excellent standards of staff and student interaction. The in-house support team has a holistic approach to training both staff and students. During key points of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UCL Initiative Support service was particularly helpful. The service helped academic teams to adopt and roll out new teaching materials, which not only improved specific modules, but allowed for high levels agility when faced with new logistical challenges.

City, University of London

While City has been operating remotely, students and staff have had to access many of their teaching applications off-campus. The solution they provide comes in the form of AppsAnywhere. Instead of having to install apps on every individual device, AppsAnywhere is a 360˚ solution delivered in the form of an app store-style platform. This approach streamlined the process of course material delivery and helped alleviate the technical issues often connected to e-learning during distance learning.

AI-driven courses, educational developers and blended learning are only some of the areas that are accelerating the higher education world. This is the new normal, and the next normal will show the impact of these changes on the global marketplace. The edtech (educational technology) industry needs new talent and offers new opportunities to new and current tech professionals alike. Here are some of the in-demand tech roles:

  • Head of Engineering – Managing teams of software engineers
  • Customer Success Manager – Building relationships between higher education institutions and software providers
  • Sales Manager – Driving communication and awareness about new software
  • Senior Product Designer – Creating designs, user research, and related user products

For deeper insights into the virtual learning world, read the first and third blogs in our online learning series or contact our team today.