Transforming the student experience: Addressing the challenges of learning online through learning design

leaf transformation

For UCEM students their time learning online, the time they spend within their VLE spaces, can be their entire experience of their University. Unlike an on-ground institution there is no walking between lectures, bumping into tutors in the union bar, hanging out in the library, halls of residence or sports facilities. These are important affordances for those who choose an on-ground learning experience, but for those who choose online education we need to apply a different lens to teaching, learning and community so that we  can provide an equal experience of quality, all be it different.

For the past two years UCEM has been engaged in a process of redesign and reimagination of the student online experience, applying new models and approaches to our entire educational provision. This semester we launched the first iteration of our ‘Transform’ modules and early indicators are showing significant advancements in student engagement and satisfaction. We’ll be looking at these in much more depth as the academic year progresses, listening to students and module teams, as well as analysing impacts on outcomes and retention. There is no doubt we have a lot more to learn, understand and share, but the purpose of this post is to outline the changes we have made in the design of the student learning experience and how they came about.

What we have learned about the challenges of online learning 

What we know now about online learning is not what we knew 10 years ago, thanks to growing body of research in the field and our work with our students. We are now in position whereby we have a strong understanding of the challenges of online education, and thus through Transform we have sought to address these in our learning design. We know that online provides students with more challenges for learning,  especially in developing the motivation and self-regulation for study, and the digital capabilities to be successful online learners. In addition, many online learners also refer to their experience as a lonely one, lacking the sense of community and support they may experience in a formal on-ground educational model. This has been linked to much higher attrition rates for online students.

The majority of UCEM students are part-time, in employment and are mature students with a number of life responsibilities which they need to juggle their studies around. Additional anxiety and stress caused by high pressure points in the study calendar such as exams, and inflexibility in terms of teaching and content delivery can present further obstacles. These challenges are not unique to online education and can affect any student at any University, but it is a challenge that arguably impacts a greater proportion of students who study online because of the flexibility it affords. Flexibility is a double edged sword, it provides opportunities to learn that may not be possible otherwise but it also requires students to be very focused and goal-orientated in their approach which can be difficult to maintain with other life pressures.

Understandably, many discussions around online education since Covid-19 have used the analogy of buildings to reflect on what becomes lost in a move to online. But it is perhaps not the change of place itself that is a challenge for learning, rather we need to look more deeply at some of the qualities linked to physicality. One of these is tangibility. When learning resources are accessed from the Web and through a screen we loose the knowledge that comes with holding a physical object in our hands, for instance the ability to predict how long it will take to study, or skim reading to get a sense of how you will engage with it. There is also research to show that how we undertake activities online such as reading and focus are dealt with differently by the brain than it would do off screen. We loose the cues that prepare us for engaging in a specific way, for instance the ways rooms are organised (e.g. lecture style, cabaret style), the ‘do not disturb’ sign on a tutor’s door. Recognising from facial expressions if someone is available to talk, or is confused, or is eager to say something is much harder. This can all result in a feeling of disorientation and feeling lost. It also can give rise to a loss of presence, be that tutor presence or the presence of peers and community.

Online, we have to work much harder to support students to stay on track, and provide more encouragement through teaching facilitation and feedback and guidance, and more structure to help them along.

A new educational framework and quality standards

To address the challenges identified requires a great many people across the institution working together. The design of the modules themselves has seen a collaboration of academic and subject matter experts with learning designers, learning technologists, library, media and accessibility experts, as well as quality control, editorial and of course student consultation.  A new educational framework was developed to directly focus our work on addressing the challenges our students face and provide them with the best possible learning experience. The framework sets out a learning design model (student-outcome led design); pedagogical approach (active and participatory); and strategies to build online presence. The framework draws on research from the sector, our own long term observations and ultimately who our students are and what they need to be successful in their learning journey.

Alongside the framework we worked to answer the question ‘What does a good quality online learning experience look like? ‘. There are a number of quality tools in existence to support this, we looked at Quality Matters and the Online Learning Consortium quality matrix. In the end we made the decision to develop our own ‘baseline’ and ‘baseline plus’ quality standards to more accurately reflect our institutional values, the UCEM student experience  and our educational framework. These now exists as checklists and are used as tools to talk about quality throughout the module design and development process and to ensure consistency of quality across modules. As we learn from tutor and student feedback these standards will be enhanced over time. 

Addressing the challenges of online learning through learning design

UCEM’s Transform modules implement the following design features in response to our educational framework.

  • All learning resources, student instructions and teaching narrative is frontloaded and made available to students at the start of the semester. This enables students to move at their own pace through their modules and supports flexibility, whether this be in response to how they need to plan their study time or in response to external events beyond their control.
  • All exams have been removed with and an assessment strategy implemented to deliver more authentic and manageable assessment experiences. Students are able to resubmit assignments to enable them to complete their studies in timely manner and have one 7-day assignment extension card they can use each semester to ease the pressure assignment deadlines.
  • All timetabled teaching events (lectures, seminars, surgeries etc.) are optional. For students who are unable to attend recordings are made available. As we enhance our synchronous events to adopt a more flipped approach, those that make heavy use of discussion, group work, break-out activities etc. will have parallel asynchronous activities designed for the VLE. This will enable students more choice in how to participate and ensure equity of learning experience.
  • All learning resources are now embedded within learning activities that adopt participatory pedagogies to enable students to actively engage with the resources, with each other, and reflect on their learning. An estimate of the time required for each activity is provided to help students to plan their time.
  • All learning activities and resources are linked directly to learning outcomes and assessment, with many activities reflecting tasks that students will be required to undertake in the workplace. 
  • Through the introduction of weekly overview, activity and wrap-up templates module leaders have authored narrative that clearly presents to students what they need to study, why it is important and how it will help them succeed in their assessment and in the workplace. Increased individual ,cohort, peer and computer-based feedback opportunities have also been designed into the modules. This supports learning motivation and provides consistent experience.
  • All learning resources have undergone review to ensure that they are current, relevant, freely available online (via the UCEM e-library or the Web), and accessible. There is less reliance on a small number of core texts creating space to provide a greater variety of learning resources and voices.
  • We design from a digital-first approach, taking into consideration the ways that digital technologies may influence learner behaviours such as reading, watching and communication.

Beyond the VLE

Learning design plays an important role in addressing the challenges of online learning and is fundamental to the UCEM study experience, however it is the students and module teams that are the very heart of it. The careful upfront design of the modules ultimately provides a framework within which we can create more flexible spaces for interaction, collaboration and discussion that are  responsive to each module presentation, the style of the tutor and the cohort of students. Launched alongside Transform a new teaching community and support area for academic staff has been created to share practice, ideas and collaboratively tackle the challenges of teaching a fully online flexible provision.