Ros Morpeth, Chief Executive of the National Extension College

Learning providers will need to embrace online learning as part of the #NewNormal 

The alarming acceleration of the Covid-19 worldwide has forced providers of education – whether they are schools, colleges, universities or other organisations – to rethink how they deliver courses.

Some were already ahead of the game with their own learning platforms so the transition from offline to online was smooth.

Others have responded with agility and imagination.

But there are some who have struggled, with teachers having to deliver online learning for the first time whilst cobbling together learning plans and assignments to download.

This change in how we deliver learning is not just a temporary blip.

Things will not simply go back to ‘normal’ once the virus is under control. Whilst for some there will always be a need for traditional face-to-face teaching, the march towards distance learning is turning into a sprint. Even before the coronavirus pandemic the global education technology sector, which includes online learning, was growing more than 15 per cent a year.

At the National Extension College we have been doing distance learning since 1963, even before the birth of the Open University!

Obviously things have moved on from the days of the correspondence course and all our courses are now offered online.

Along the way we have learned a few things about how to manage distance learning well and keep students engaged.

Staying motivated is essential for all students, but even more vital when they are working from home without physically being in the classroom.

Here are our top ten tips:

1. Planning.

Take time to plan the course so that students are kept interested with quizzes, self assessments and activities built in so they can see how they’re progressing.

Online course development is a big subject, warranting another whole article, but there are a number of models to consider:

  • You can replicate face-to-face teaching by using video conferencing.
  • Then there are self-study courses with feedback within the course without tutor involvement.
  • Structured courses that are cohort based (with a group of students), or
  • offered on a roll-on roll-off basis with tutor support and assessment are another option.
  • A mixture of all these is another.

2. Technology.

Make sure you can support students who are struggling with the technology. Some may not have access to a computer or need to share it with other members of the family. Some may struggle with systems such as Zoom and Facetime.

At NEC we have found that once learners have got over the first hurdle most of them adapt very quickly and enjoy the freedom and control they experience from learning online. Students value the facility to go back and check and also to make mistakes in private.

One student who had failed GCSE Maths three times in college and passed as a result of her NEC online course said that she had discovered that she could use her mistakes to learn from. That gave her the confidence to overcome her fear of maths.


3. Learning styles.

Use more than one kind of approach. Some students do not respond well to having to read loads of text, this will present a particular challenge for those who learn in a kinetic way (learn by doing).

Audio is making a real comeback after being undervalued. For example if the course contains literature, tell students to look for links to sites for audio books which can give a totally different level of understanding of the text and can be listened to when they are travelling or doing the ironing.

4. Goals.

Set out clearly what each lesson is about with a list of learning goals at the start. Online learning needs to be more structured than normal classroom teaching where you can go ‘off piste’ if the discussion moves in that direction.

Good on line content takes much longer to prepare than face-to-face lessons, but the beauty of having shared resources online is that teachers can pool them instead of having to reinvent the wheel.

An added bonus is that they can quickly be improved and updated

5. Study buddies.

Create chat groups and pair up students with study buddies. You can do this through WhatsApp or Facebook. At NEC we use forums where students can chat to each other and ask for help and support. Some students set up their own private groups as well.

6. Generic resources.

Make sure you have generic resources that will help people to get to grips with online learning. At NEC we offer guidance on studying, essay writing, independent learning and lots more. We are giving free access to these resources in our resources store for the month of May.

7. Keeping going.

Be aware of mid-course despondency. After the excitement of enrolment and the completion of the first few assignments, other less helpful emotions can come to the fore leaving students feeling demotivated. The most common negative feelings are lack of time (even when you seem to have lots more during lockdown), lack of focus and a lack of progress.

People stuck at home can easily get distracted by a movie on the TV, computer games or even a desire to clear out their wardrobe. Keeping in touch with them via email, phone or social media is really important.

8. Feedback.

There is real skill in giving constructive feedback on tutor marked assignments to students who are studying on line. A tick at the end with a brief comment might work if you can then have a conversation with the student in class, but your on line student is in a class of one and deserves much more detailed feedback.

If the work is good you need to explain why it is good and if it needs improvement you need to explain exactly what the student needs do to improve, with examples wherever possible. Always use a friendly and encouraging tone. Imagine how you would feel as a student if the first sentence from your tutor’s feedback was ‘A disappointing piece of work ‘

9. Webinars.

If you have a cohort of students ,you can run webinars to keep in regular contact. They can focus on a particular topic, such as calculus (for maths courses), or they can provide generic support with revision. The webinars can be recorded so they are available to students who have missed them or want to go back and revisit.

10. People.

Remember that your students are people with their own lives and own problems. It really helps to make a human connection providing you are able to maintain a professional relationship. It is fine to ask about a sick relative or a pressure at work and to be flexible about deadlines if that’s possible.

Online learning has the power to create a level playing field. It can reach people in prison, people with disabilities and people with irregular work patterns. It works well with social distancing so learning doesn’t have to stop because schools, colleges and universities are closed.

Whilst face-to-face and online learning are not in opposition both are methods of delivery that can be used effectively in different situations. But it’s clear that once the lockdown is over learning providers will need to embrace online learning as part of the ‘new normal’. Their survival depends on it.

Ros Morpeth, Chief Executive of the National Extension College, and Anne Nicholls, writer and communications consultant

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