What online can teach on-campus

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How can we capture the ‘on-campus’ learning experience in online degrees? It’s a fundamental concern that has shaped the development of online learning since it entered the fray four decades ago. Now we have reached a point where in fact, if we approach it in the right way, the question for us is becoming: what can ‘on-campus’ learn from the online experience?

Aston’s experience of online postgraduate study

This year marked the start of an important change in direction for us with the launch of Aston Online – a series of taught postgraduate programmes delivered in partnership with online learning specialists Keypath Education. Beginning with the launch of four programmes taught from Aston Business School, this represents the beginning of a rapid expansion of online postgraduate programmes. The modules are 100% online, and designed to be flexible enough to fit around a busy work life and other commitments.

Traditionally, our strength has been in on-campus learning. But we are conscious that we do not want to be too dependent on one segment of the market. Online gives us the opportunity to diversify our portfolio of degree programmes and open ourselves up to students who want to learn and develop, but can’t commit to studying on-site due to the time and/or distance involved.

The promised ‘online revolution’ in higher education hasn’t yet come to fruition. Universities are still feeling their way through this space, and the socialisation that is so important for undergraduates will never be fulfilled in the same way by an online experience. But for part-time postgraduates, the thing that gets in the way is almost always family, work and travel commitments. So this, we believe, is where online has real potential.

Ironically, I find online to be a much more personalised type of learning; you learn how you want, when you want. With on-campus undergraduates you may be talking to hundreds of students at once, who tend not to be so demanding without the pressures of work or family to juggle. However, for our online students we have had to fine-tune our processes, communications and attitudes to place the learner at the heart of the system.

We believe one of the best ways to learn is when you are able to apply it immediately. This is a strong argument for moving more postgraduate courses online – you are learning about it on Monday evening and then applying it on Tuesday morning. The difficulty that undergraduates often have is that they’re learning so much theory and then by the time they find employment, most of it has – understandably – left their heads. Online allows part-time postgraduates to understand the practical implications of what they learn as they go along.

This much I know

In the year that we have been running Aston Online with Keypath, here are the six more important things I have learned so far:

  1. Online students are unforgiving. They’ll pay the way they want to pay, learn the way they want to learn, and expect you to answer their queries when it works for them. To do online at scale, you need to place the learner at the centre of everything. Really, it means treating learners more like customers – and what is it they say about customers?
  2. You need slick ‘backroom’ processes. The learning environment, the communication systems, the online materials – they all need to be working like clockwork. There are still concerns that relying solely on the internet for something as serious as a degree is a risky move. This is far from the case nowadays, but you need to eliminate any worries by providing a strong student support network. The technology is there, but it’s not enough on its own.
  3. A clear communications strategy is crucial. The way you talk to your online students needs to be even more carefully planned and focussed than your on-campus students. We have one person responsible for planning all our communication, and we aim to make contact with students at least once per week. This has led to us achieving a strong retention rate of 96 percent, and as a result, we are now looking at how we can build a similar communications strategy for our on-campus students. Separate from Aston Online, we offer a blended learning experience for our degree apprentices, who don’t have the full-time and on-campus experience that undergraduates are likely to have – so clearly communicated support networks are especially important for them.
  4. Design your course content carefully. The learning experience needs to be just as rich as the classroom, despite the potential lack of immediacy. We do this with advanced online materials and lots of online and telephone support, as well as having graduate teaching assistants and PhD students available.
  5. You need to have your best academics on-side. Never coming face-to-face with the people you’re trusting to teach you can be daunting, especially when there has been so much negative press around bogus and poor quality online degrees. Encouraging your most talented staff to engage with online learning will help convince current and prospective students that there is no differentiation in quality between online and on-campus. With online learning becoming increasingly the norm, it’s also a way to give academic staff the chance to learn how best to use resources to improve teaching quality.
  6. You need to challenge the old way of doing things. It is the institution that needs to work around the needs of the online student, not the other way round. For instance, when we first started taking in students for Aston Online there was an issue around students who wanted to pay their fees via credit card, something we couldn’t accommodate. A commitment to iron out all the creases in your own systems is vital as you take on new types of students.

Aston Online has been an invigorating process and is leading us to look again at how we can deliver an outstanding learning experience for all our students. While it has been a catalyst for change, there is no reason why so much of what we have learned cannot be applied for our on-campus students. Personalised learning, regular and tailored communications, highly responsive support networks – these are the things that all students should be able to access, and the next challenge for us will be to work out how we can make this happen.

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