A student-centric approach to online education

Arlene Stewart distils her learning from 20 years of designing online courses to be student-centred

Arlene Stewart is director of academic and operations at OES UK

There’s a lot of research and analysis being published about the switch to online modes during the pandemic, and an OfS inquiry into blended learning, but less is being said about courses built with the online student in mind.

Perhaps this is where the political challenge to online learning comes from: there is an assumption that it is of lower quality because the emergency responses have been a compromise from what was originally intended.

If you start, as I do, building wholly online study experiences then you work with platforms and technologies to enable community, belonging, and great outcomes. I’ve been designing, managing, and leading online degree delivery for nearly two decades. In that time, I’ve worked with several universities and across a whole range of disciplines, though my academic background is in the creative arts.

At the time when we started delivering courses fully online with partner universities, some people were sceptical that they could be delivered well. But we’ve proved that it’s not only possible: you can also deliver great outcomes for students.

As more institutions think about developing their online offers, and as the demand for fully online degrees grows, I wanted to reflect on the key things that I’ve learned over the years.

Being seen and heard

Our courses have worked best when students are actively engaged in shaping their experiences and learning. This is grounded in knowing each student as an individual through manageable cohort sizes and the investment of time to understand everyone’s needs.

While online education might necessarily have more standardised elements than some face-to-face teaching experiences, there remains the absolute necessity for students to be, and feel, heard.

Establishing feedback and reflection expectations at the outset encourages the regular process of self-evaluation as well as reflection on their learning experience. With this platform, we achieve the level of engagement which directly informs delivery and curriculum.

To support engagement, it’s incumbent on us to provide crystal-clear and accessible information about what’s expected on the course. We have to be honest by not saying that everything is going to be easy because we know that online learners often choose to study in that way because they are juggling lots of other commitments. We support students up front with time management skills and offer practical advice such as suggesting timings against all activities to help students gauge when to stop.

From the foundation of transparent communication, you can build effective relationships between student support advisers and individual students. For example, we need to be particularly clear about the respective roles that we and the partner university have across education, IT, student support, fees, and so on.

It’s also essential to have high standards of service: we make sure that we respond to academic and non-academic queries quickly and effectively. And we make sure that no one feels like they’re “just a number”.

Pedagogies for online study

When we speak about student-centric learning design – which is the core of our approach at OES – we’re building on both the research literature and our direct experience of delivering online degrees. For example, we always try to use learning platforms to their fullest extent, including opportunities for peer interaction.

It’s always useful to have plenty of formative assessment opportunities: we find that students really value the reassurance that they’re on track to succeed. We also make sure that our academic staff provide timeous personalised feedback on which students can take meaningful action. We also build in choice around a variety of assessment methods including plenty of video, presentations, and journals.

We aim to pair quality of experience with equality of opportunity: the learning opportunities need to be available to all. For example, it takes experience to know how to balance live events and learning opportunities which add value and currency against accessibility to a geographically dispersed student audience.

We find that the personalisation which comes from asynchronous study – where the student builds their learning experience around their timetable unanchored to attending live events – is appealing to our students.

To further support student choice, we use a model of differentiation which supports students to achieve a baseline while providing scope for those with the capacity to stretch themselves.

Staying connected

Group work can be a challenge in many learning contexts; we make it work with a lot of scaffolding and coordination around the individual students. It’s also optional so that those students who are able to collaborate can get the benefits while not penalising students for whom the option isn’t appropriate.

Through networking opportunities, we ensure online learning can increase personal and professional connections with a broad spectrum of peers.

Things are changing so quickly: we’ve seen over the past couple of years that there are much higher expectations from students for us to supply material in multiple formats.

No two learners are the same but there are common themes for many of our students, such as a focus on job-relevance and employment outcomes. Our task is to provide a great quality education and experience meeting their demands for efficiency while fitting study around other commitments.

These themes and issues will clearly resonate with colleagues developing courses for on-campus delivery: understand your student, treat them as an individual, provide learning in accessible ways with useful feedback, and support them when they need it.

A potential misconception about fully online learning is that we’ve completely depersonalised the experience but for us that’s not true. With thoughtful design, we make sure that students succeed through learning which fits with their lives and ambitions.

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