Universities and the challenge of online learning

Dr Darrell Evans

The results of university student experience ratings including those recently released in Australia (Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching) have shown a large drop in the learning experience students have received over the last year in many institutions.

Universities and some commentators have been quick to raise the global pandemic as the major contributing factor to this significant decrease. Although this is undoubtedly the case for a number of reasons, online learning seems to be under particular fire as a result and is in danger of becoming collateral damage.

So has the shift to predominantly online provision over the last year really been the cause of such student unhappiness? We believe it is not the move to online that is the issue, but rather the speed and nature of the move.

Darrell Evans
Dr Darrell Evans: The rush to online needn’t have led to hit-and-miss results

Many educators quickly took up the challenge and responded by adapting their learning and teaching approaches to accommodate restrictions on providing face-to-face opportunities.

The effort and creativity demonstrated undoubtedly led to some very effective outcomes and institutions certainly owe a great deal of debt to their educators and others supporting the learning experience.

However, it can be argued that for many courses the result has been the delivery of a remote learning strategy accentuated by a transfer of many traditional and face-to-face aligned approaches to an online platform without thinking about how learners will engage and interact with it, rather than the creation of a purposely designed online learning experience.

The somewhat unfavourable outcomes of the student experience are therefore not unexpected.

There appeared to be a perception from some institutional leaders that the move to remote learning meant that the online learning box was ticked and that capability and expertise to deliver was in place.

The results from the student surveys however demonstrate that the experience developed did not meet the expectations of the students and unfortunately the consequence has been for some leaders to now imply that an online learning experience cannot be as good as a face-to-face experience and the quicker the return to the on-campus environment the better.

Such a view is misplaced and disappointing as the actual issue of effective online curriculum design is not being addressed. Arguably those institutions with strong records in online provision did far better in student surveys than some others, although more detailed analysis needs to occur.

To ensure a positive experience that leads to enhanced learning gain, online learning needs to be developed within a curriculum design framework that is based on effective pedagogical principles and in the knowledge of what makes online learning work for students.

This means incorporating an ability for students to connect with educators and their peers to promote social learning; active facilitation and learning support that takes account of learner availability; and the utilisation of quality learning approaches, effective digital learning assets and appropriate smart technologies that align with an online delivery environment.

Similarly, the provision of a set of learning resources with an “off you go” message to learners fails to understand the need to create a navigable, curated and intuitive environment for students to engage with their learning.

Should the educator alone be expected to transition to an online learning mindset and create and deliver all elements of an effective online curriculum? The answer must surely be no.

While enabling the capability of all educators in curriculum design is important, we must remember that there are increasing numbers of instructional design professionals with the knowledge and skills to work with educators in developing effective learning strategies across online and face-to-face provision.

Some universities have their own in-house team of designers working on curriculum development, but there are also dedicated companies specialised in learning design who can assist in the sustainable set up of online learning.

Utilising such know-how also has the advantage of benefitting from effective project management capability ensuring design outcomes are produced on time, on budget and fit-for-purpose.

The global pandemic and results of student experience surveys have exposed the importance of purposely designing online learning. It is therefore essential to bring educators, instructional designers and others together to ensure a deliberate approach to effective curriculum design and development results and that online learning and digitally engaged learning is not viewed as second best.

Dr Darrell Evans is a senior advisor to Australian learning solution specialists Liberate Learning

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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