Transforming learning is for life, not just until Christmas

Improving online learning isn’t just about delivering for students in September - it’s about being prepared for whatever the future may bring, says Andrew Turner.

Back in the nineties, Coventry University was one of the first UK universities to acquire a virtual learning environment (VLE) and mandate that all our courses should be supported with online content.

At the time, one of the pro vice chancellors had been over to visit a university in the States and had returned with excitement after seeing the use of a virtual learning environment. Coventry made a large investment and formed a teaching and learning task force to implement the VLE. At the time we certainly felt that we were at the cutting edge – and in fairness, we were.

But in all the iterations since of virtual learning environments, we’ve never been able to reconcile the pedagogical values that we know to be powerful – an active, social, transformative learning experience – with the static, one-size-fits-all approach that our VLEs seemed to result in.

The bottom line

The pace of change that the pandemic is demanding of universities is relentless. Colleagues across the university are working around the clock to reconfigure learning and teaching for the term ahead, and solve the seemingly endless challenges thrown up by public health and social distancing guidelines that are in constant flux.

Though we’re justifiably proud of the speed with which we converted our face to face provision to online to cope with the demands of lockdown, we also know that “good enough” won’t cut it in September.

In May, I spoke at the Aula and Wonkhe “No Buildings From September” event, which brought the higher education sector together to try to process the implications of Covid-19 and how it might transform learning and teaching.

It was clear that many colleagues across the sector were overwhelmed and enormously stressed. But there was also a golden thread of optimism and resolution that collectively, we have an opportunity, that we may not get again, to upgrade our learning and teaching provision, and prepare our universities to meet a new future.

If we’re to be able to scale up higher education to meet the projected student demand of the coming decade, we need to be able to create engaging learning experiences that are also accessible remotely, giving students the choice and flexibility that their lives require.

The bottom line is: we simply have to find ways to meet the needs of our students if they’re not to become the generation lost to Covid-19.

Experience,  not management

Before Covid-19 struck, Coventry was already on a journey to find ways that technology could support the sort of interactive learning and teaching engagement that students get in face to face teaching. We had already decided that our approach would be to work with a suite of partners, building our own ed tech ecosystem in which each part of the system would offer the best quality possible for students in that area, rather than accepting a single system that worked well in some ways but not in others.

We were also alert to the ways that technology platforms shape student behaviour. Learning experience platforms, like Aula, rather than traditional learning management systems, more easily enable engagement in learning, positioning conversation at the heart of the learning experience.

Learning experience platforms make it possible for learners to interact and share resources with each other, and structure their own learning, as well as engaging with academic-led content. It’s like having a streaming service rather than pre-programmed terrestrial channels. And, in common with popular streaming services, in pilots with Aula we found that more than 50 per cent of interactions in the learning experience platform were from mobile devices, hugely increasing the flexibility for student engagement in learning.

Courses remain academically rigorous and are delivered by experienced lecturers. Learning is structured for online learning, prompting a different kind of engagement from students – there’s more encouragement for students to share their own knowledge and be more self-directed and autonomous, as well as engaging with what’s been made available to them. These, of course, are exactly the attitudes and capabilities that employers expect from graduates.

We’d already done some hard work over the past few years restructuring our academic year so that we had three defined start points, with each semester self-contained. That meant that we had a perfect opportunity with students starting in May to see if we could roll out this new approach at speed.

Working with the learning design team at Aula, we rapidly reconfigured the curricula of 70 modules – saving staff an enormous amount of time and developing their digital pedagogy skills along the way – to enable them to be active, applied, social, and inclusive.

In piloting Aula we had found that courses on Aula got double the student engagement compared with our learning management system, and that academic staff had said Aula provided better, immediate, easier communication with students. There were no implications for quality assurance – the learning outcomes remained exactly the same, although we did need to make sure that planned assessments were suitable for online delivery.

Bridging into learning

We know that students need to be able to interact with their peers and lecturers to feel a sense of academic community and belonging. Even when students receive regular communications it’s easy for them to feel abandoned, and they need that sense that somebody in the university cares about their academic engagement and takes an interest in how they are progressing.

And while social learning places more responsibility on students for their learning, it’s equally important that we take responsibility for inducting and supporting students into the habits of effective digital engagement. We’ve invested time in developing an online induction for our students and in our new academic year structure the first six weeks is designated as the course induction period.

As soon as a student confirms they are coming to us we release them into the online environment, even before they arrive to engage with the online induction. The whole programme is facilitated at school level, as we’re aiming to create communities and belonging before students join us. We also start teaching from the very start of term, rather than expecting students to go through a welcome week without any formal teaching – something we’ve discovered students find stressful, as the real sense of community is achieved through taking part in teaching and learning activities.

Through working with Aula we’ve been able to align our aspirations for transformative learning with our online delivery, because the platform prompts social learning, and enables interaction from any device – students can easily raise a question and have it answered, not only by their lecturer, but potentially by other students. In evaluation, we found that 76 per cent of students “felt easily connected with staff and students” compared to 41 per cent of HE learners responding to Jisc’s digital experience insights survey in 2018.

For September, our starting point is that while we aim to guarantee some face to face teaching, we can’t assume that all our students will be able to take advantage of that, so the core curriculum must be deliverable online. And so we’ll be working with Aula to roll out that process for over 1,200 of our modules.

None of us know what the next major global crisis is going to look like or how it might affect us. “Getting back to normal” might be an option at some point next year, but even if it happens, we can’t be confident that it will last.

In developing our digital learning model we’ll be in a position to dial face to face provision up or down, and students can switch back and forth between the two modes without significant disruption. Though there’s never any guarantees, future proofing learning and teaching in this way means that whatever the next crisis is, we should be in a much better position to meet it head-on.

This article is published in association with Aula. To learn more about Coventry University’s pilot of the Aula learning experience platform, click here.

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