Principal Thoughts: a discussion on online learning

Posted on: 2018-05-30

Welcome to the latest edition of Ashley Wheaton’s ‘Principal Thoughts’. In this edition, Ashley provides his insight into the world of online education and speaks with colleagues Fiona Harvey, Head of Digital Education, and Lynne Downey, Vice Principal – Online Education, about how online learning compares to face-to-face teaching, and the benefits of UCEM’s online offering.

Online education has seen tremendous growth in the last decade and student enrolment onto such classes continues to grow. UCEM is an online education provider and its approach to supported online learning provides students with the flexibility to balance their study commitments around their work and lifestyle.

Supported online education provides huge benefits, such as a flexible learning experience for students who have other commitments and perhaps don’t live near an institution that provides bespoke Built Environment programmes. This type of learning is also easily accessible to students with disabilities as, for example, there’s no need to leave any required support function in order to attend a campus. At UCEM, we use assistive technologies, such as our online VLE (Virtual Learning Environment), to support all our students and allow them to go at their own pace. In addition to this, being an online student also provides opportunities to develop digital skills – a skillset which is become increasingly important in the workplace.

Whilst there are many benefits to supported online education, negative comparisons are often made to learning in a traditional university environment. Here, I speak with Fiona Harvey and Lynne Downey from UCEM’s Online Education Department about their views on supported online education and the continual evolution of UCEM’s offering.

Supported online education versus traditional learning environments

Directly compared to a traditional classroom environment, supported online education is more flexible and accessible – as mentioned above. This method of learning requires students to be potentially more self-motivated and organised in their study; however, these are highly regarded skills when it comes to employability, and there is a wealth of support available in online learning for any students who require further assistance.

At UCEM, our students don’t have lectures and tutorials like a traditional university, they partake in engaging digital activities within an online learning environment.  We have designed our programmes based on research that we have undertaken in our Online Learning Research Centre, ensuring we’re meeting the needs of our students. With this research, we have designed our VLE to be a repository of learning resources as well as a virtual teaching and learning space. Students are also able to have regular discussions with peers and academics alike, keep a real-time track of their own timetable, and don’t have to travel long distances to make their lecture or use the library. Our VLE is built around meeting the busy schedules of students in the 21st century, regardless of their location.

How has UCEM developed its supported online education offering and adapted to industry changes?

We are always looking at how to enhance our offering to help students succeed. For example, last September we introduced ‘online marking’ to some of our modules, which has enabled tutors to provide immediate and direct feedback to students.

Technology for education is ever-evolving and we keep abreast of developments to ensure we invest in the most suitable software and resources for our students. We have a dedicated team of researchers within the Online Education Department who are responsible for adapting our offering and coming up with new and innovative ways to support students online.

We have also adapted our educational offering with the introduction of apprenticeships. In order to comply with ESFA (Education and Skills Funding Agency) funding rules, and to help support those learners who felt they would benefit more from having personal interaction we introduced face-to-face workshops at Level 3 – for a more blended learning approach rather than a fully online one. Being agile and responsive to the changing market is one of our strengths, and it’s much easier for us than traditional universities – who usually have a broader focus and aren’t always organised in a way that can adapt to changes across individual sectors.

What would be your predictions for the future of online education?

We certainly think there will be more use of emerging technologies. Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are now being used in innovative ways in education to give students experiences they would never have in a classroom alone. We also think the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to support learning and teaching is an interesting area that will develop; changing assessment approaches to demonstrate students’ real-life skills rather than sitting in a room and writing for three hours in an exam.

Two examples we love are IBM’s ‘Watson Classroom’ and Cornell University. Watson Classroom’ is there to help teachers deliver truly personalised learning to improve student outcomes. It is an IBM MobileFirst education app for iOS, providing teachers with a single 360-degree view of students by consolidating various academic, social, and behavioural data sources. These insights generate suggestions on how best to help each student so they receive fast and targeted support in the classroom.

Cornell University has been looking at ways of using vast amounts of data generated by students in order to enhance their learning experience. Using AI to analyse the student’s essays, it highlights sections that need rewriting in order to guide the feedback process. And it does so in a matter of seconds, freeing up academics to spend more time on developing and inspiring students.

A summary from me

Online education is here to stay and it’s ever evolving. Online enrolments are being driven by the growing number of students who are seeking flexible formats for courses and degree programmes to support career placement, advancement, and transition – as well as to pursue advanced studies.

At UCEM, our core purpose is to provide truly accessible, relevant and cost-effective education – accessible regardless of geographical location, family or work commitments, and disabilities and additional needs. Currently, 40% of UCEM’s students are based overseas and 10.2% are registered with the Disability and Wellbeing Team.

I’m extremely proud that UCEM is the leading provider of accessible and flexible online education in the Built Environment, and that we have a highly capable and adaptable Online Education Department who constantly seek to improve our students’ online learning experience.

If you’re interested in reading more on online learning, read our blog Our students in focus: Debunking the myths surrounding online education.