Remote learning will expose gaps in digital learning experiences

The student expectations of the future are here now, thanks to Covid-19. Aula CEO Anders Krohn thinks through how to build fully remote dream courses for September.

Had Covid-19 not struck, many students would now be returning to campuses after the Easter break. Instead, they are gearing up in homes around the world for a full term of remote learning.

Over the past month, universities have accomplished what few would have thought possible back in February – they have taken courses that were never designed to be delivered that way, to remote delivery.

It’s an astounding achievement and testament to the energy and collaborative nature of the UK higher education sector.

But now, as the sector adjusts to this “new normal” – likely lasting into September and beyond – the difference between universities that have invested purposefully in their digital learning experience and those that have not will become uncomfortably obvious. This will manifest in students’ learning experiences, engagement, and success.

Even before the pandemic hit, the distinction between universities that were investing in their digital learning experience and those who had made it a lower priority or nice to have was becoming increasingly obvious.

In search of dream courses

Universities that embrace the full potential of digital learning provide students with opportunities to deepen their understanding of new concepts, build stronger relationships with peers and professors, and develop a greater sense of ownership over their learning experience – even when they can’t be on campus.

Achieving this requires significant investment in learning (re)design for the digital age. Instead of allowing established ways of working to drive curricula and trying to replicate these online (which, as every article you’ve read on this topic has pointed out ad nauseum, doesn’t work), it means harnessing the potential of digital technology to allow students to extend learning beyond the classroom walls and interact with disciplinary knowledge, academic expertise, and each other, in new ways.

In searching for a good answer on where to start, we have spoken to thousands of academics and university leaders. We’ve learned that every university has its Dream Courses – those courses that are creating a bit of a buzz on campus, where students are excited to show up and that, not coincidentally, have fantastic outcomes to show for it. As one pro vice chancellor for teaching and learning told us, Dream Courses, “are the embodiment of our education strategy”.

Dream Courses vary by institution, by subject discipline and by student demographic, but common to all Dream Courses is that they are built around active learning approaches that drive engagement, and they value the learning community as a critical component of each student’s learning experience, motivating participation and strengthening students’ sense of belonging.

The problem is, for the vast majority of academics it is virtually impossible to deliver Dream Courses via digital – reflections of the promises of university education strategies – without significantly adding to their workload. University leaders know that. In an InsideHE survey of 172 university leaders in the United States, 75 per cent of respondents rated it very challenging or somewhat challenging to “train faculty less familiar with digital delivery”, a challenge only exceeded by “maintaining student engagement” (81 per cent), which arguably is a consequence of the former problem.

Additionally, we know there are significant access issues facing students – whether it is a digital inclusion issue, or environmental factors that stand in the way of their learning right now. This will only be exacerbated when new cohorts of students who don’t yet know one another start in September.

Therefore, the two questions university leaders must urgently ask themselves are: how do we take everything we know about the Dream Courses we have, and scale that learning experience, without compromising academics’ wellbeing and autonomy? And, how do we ensure that students can access this learning experience anytime they need, from any device they have available?

Accelerated timelines 

Covid-19 has accelerated every university’s timeline on digital learning. And students’ expectations for their digital learning experience have suddenly caught up with the expectations they have for all the other digital experiences they have every day.

“Digital experiences” cannot be conflated with “digital tools”. While having the right tools that facilitate active learning and community building digitally is essential, what the Dream Courses perspective highlights is that it is only when they’re paired with the right training and thoughtful learning design that the magic happens. Understanding one’s Dream Courses is not just the best way to rethink the learning experience at scale, it is also the fastest way to get to “good enough”.

Robert Talbert, an academic, put it on social media: “The conversation right now in higher ed shouldn’t be about ‘how do we/should we reopen face-to-face instruction in the fall’. It should be about ‘how do we get everyone to move to pedagogies that are decoupled from physical co-location’. How do we migrate away from instructional methods that depend upon physical space and toward methods that can move in and out of physical spaces, with minimal prior notice and with minimal disruption?” In other words, Dream Courses for a truly hybrid future will be designed purposefully to be that way.

High-quality digital learning experiences are not a luxury; they are a necessity. In many ways seeing the current situation as a “new normal” is wrong. It is, rather, the acceleration of the arrival of the learner expectations of the future. The world may eventually return to normal, but the teaching and learning experience should never be the same.

Share practice to make progress

Unless universities are prepared to demonstrate that they can rise to the challenge and deliver Dream Courses across the board and entirely remotely, the cost in terms of attrition, deferrals, complaints, and decline in student attainment will be significant.

If the forced remote learning continues into the start of the next academic year in September, and incoming students are not convinced by what’s on offer, the threat of declining enrolment could become existential. If they arrive and do not like what they receive, the chance that they come back after the winter break is lower than ever before.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that universities are faced with delivering the equivalent of a ten-year strategy in mere months – and those who have not yet invested in their digital learning strategy will be lagging behind from the outset.

But it’s not in the best interests of the sector to start looking for competitive edges or finding ways to put pressure on students to accept a sub-standard offer. Though the UK HE sector may occasionally feel fractious and disunited, compared to university sectors in other countries the UK sector is extraordinarily collaborative and communicative.

No university can claim that every single one of its courses has achieved Dream Course status. But every university has insight to share about how it might be done. By pooling that insight and coming together to tackle the problem, the sector as a whole can make rapid progress – with students as the ultimate beneficiaries.

On 7 May Aula and Wonkhe will convene an interactive event: No buildings from September – what on earth do we do about the learning experience? Find out more information and register to take part here.

9 responses to “Remote learning will expose gaps in digital learning experiences

  1. Sara, do you mean suggestions for academics or suggestions for leadership? This was more meant as commentary for leadership to get started, but I can certainly point you in the direction of more practical guides 🙂

  2. I’d like to see the evidence that dream courses are all based on active learning. Can you justify this assertion?

  3. I just wanted to see what fellow readers think about the idea that the sector has ‘accomplished’ a move of ‘courses that were never designed to be delivered that way, to remote delivery’ – the opening statement in the article.

    I’m confident about this accomplishment when thinking of staff and students’ dedication to keep on learning.

    I’m less confident when I think about what courses might now look like online and what learners are expected to do/get from the online space:

    Have most courses moved beyond repository uses?
    If so, what models are they drawing, e.g. those for DL delivery?
    Do they scale-up?
    What does student engagement look like in this new set-up?

    Guess these might be some of the things teams who are focusing on making this a normality are/need to be looking into.

  4. *@Sara, @Peter, @Shafeena:*
    For very tactical suggestions for educators I think this post by Joshua Frost at Minerva is a good place to start: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/eight-ways-avoid-crickets-joshua-fost/?trackingId=2k6hbhYTQ%2Bi2zLmhAQzJyw%3D%3D

    For a more comprehensive of resources that for example learning designers and TEL managers can use to make institution specific guides, the ‘Best Practices’ section of Stanford’s Teach Anywhere website is quite good: https://teachanywhere.stanford.edu/best-practices

    For an overview of the ocean of resources available, this Educause link seems to be updated quite frequently (but quite US focused): https://library.educause.edu/topics/teaching-and-learning/online-learning

    For senior leaders at institutions, I think things depend a lot more on the financial circumstances of the institution, so it is a bit harder to point to concrete resources.

    *Linda*: Given that I’m the CEO of Aula it would be quite surprising if my opinions wouldn’t be aligned with that of the company I run, but I understand what you mean! Some would call it an opinion piece, some an advertisement. I’m just doing my best to contribute with thoughts to the debate based on the experiences we have at Aula.

    *@Bridget*:
    I’m not sure I completely understand the question, but I will respond below, feel free to clarify with me if that’s helpful!

    If your question is whether I would assert that any Dream Course – as a concept – would be based on active learning approaches, then my answer is yes.

    If your question is whether existing Dream Courses always embody principles of active learning approaches, then I think it is not that black and white. Ultimately any course ought to depend on the context of the institution, the educator, the students and the subject disciplines. That certainly means that you can find institutions where they would point to courses and say “that’s where great teaching is happening”, but where one according to some definitions of active learning could argue that said courses didn’t embody the the principles of active learning.

    *@Tarek*:

    Thanks a lot – very valid questions! My thoughts would be:

    1) Have most courses moved beyond repository uses (not just for one or two teaching sessions)?

    I think in most cases not, but I do think that poses institutions with a challenge from a retention perspective in September and I’m arguing that the best way for leaders within these institutions to address that is to look for ‘Dream Courses’ and spread those practices amongst other academics at rapid pace.

    2) If so, what models are they drawing, e.g. those for distance delivery?
    Do they scale-up?

    If you mean scale-up as in great courses attracting greater numbers of learners, I do think we’ll see some of that (less in the UK than US though). If you mean scale up as in approaches scaling beyond initial courses then I would argue that that’s where institutions are most likely to go wrong.

    3) What does student engagement look like in this new set-up?

    I think that massively depends on the context. Hopefully student engagement in a remote set up would embody some of the things that many learners are currently missing, namely the interaction and community between them and their peers. Any replication of 1:many approaches in digital space is likely to have even worse impact than it has in physical space as students now also lack the social context that many get from the surrounding campus experience.

    Guess these will be some of the things teams who are focusing on making this a normality are and need to be looking into.

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