Adapt to Survive

Is it time to look at Distance Learning again?

Back in January, before Covid-19 and before my career change, a colleague and I wrote a project brief for some European Studies students at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. It’s a piece of work we do for them each year – setting a research project, supporting five student groups as they engage with it, and then subjecting them to the ominous, but highly enjoyable jury day for assessment and results. Our project title this year: Adapt to Survivecan online distance learning help universities face current and future challenges? They were due to start in May.

As the start date loomed, the world had shifted on its axis. We’d both spent several intense weeks at the HE coalface – shifting our University to online delivery by supporting, informing, and guiding our teaching staff, and I was about to hop over the fence to ITGL. In this new environment, the title didn’t seem so leftfield, indeed it is now a highly relevant question that many institutes are asking themselves, and that ITGL is helping them to figure out.

With a Covid-19 postscript added to the project brief, our five student groups engaged with the literature and the dialogue – the published and scholarly, and dynamic, social, political, news – the voice of the sector as it scrambled to re-articulate itself with incredible urgency. Our students too were stakeholders, they interviewed peers, distilled themes, and made recommendations while making the adjustments to distance learning themselves: moving home, learning to work together only remotely, coping with uncertainty.

The new landscape

So, what did they find? Well to be honest, pretty much what we expected, and it came down to the nuts and bolts:

They recognised the challenges faced by universities “in providing a secure, adaptive and high-quality environment, that is both engaging and efficient”, and the importance of platforms that are “diverse, and yet easy to work with”. Good training, guidance, support and community are all fundamental for the confidence and wellbeing of students and staff in their use of the chosen tools and approaches.

Flexibility, quality and the student experience                          

They highlighted the need for adaptive and flexible strategies and robust infrastructure, recommending that teaching staff should be directly involved in the development of these. They said that “meaningful standards should be set to ensure the consistency and quality of the offer”. Most groups talked of poor clarity and uncertainty – inconsistency in the use of systems (with so many tools being used in so many ways) and the effect this has on the learner experience. They registered that learning at a distance demands different and additional workloads for staff – that distance learning is not, and never has been, a cheaper or easier route for universities to deliver.

They observed their own experiences of learning in isolation, often surprised at the extent to which it either suited their needs and learning styles, or presented unwelcome challenges of disconnection and reduced motivation. For the most part, they felt it important to retain some real-life contact with their peers and teachers to “alleviate impersonality” and because “cooperating online is easier after you have met in person and had some social time together”. Do remember though, these are students who never signed up for a distance learning approach – they ended up using their own personal experiences to inform their research on the potential for emerging distance learning markets.

Strategic planning

All in all, they scratched the surface. Beneath their observations and recommendations are layers of nuance and need which those experienced in designing and delivering distance learning will be acutely aware of. Right now, institutions are in the throes of planning for the next semester, reconciling ambitions for on-site delivery with the practicalities and realities of facilities, timetabling, and social distancing, while maintaining the momentum of the unexpected gift of digital transformation. This, of course is very different from intentional strategic planning for distance learning routes, but that said, with the autumn under their belts, many institutions now will almost certainly be looking afresh at the potential of this market segment to help them survive. The task for ITGL is to work in partnership with them, and their students as they embark on these strategic journeys, to provide insight and help them realise the vision.

With thanks to students of The Hague University of Applied Sciences and Juliun Ryan at Sheffield Hallam University

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Helen Rodger

Published by Helen Rodger
July 8, 2020

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