Online – but not all revolutionary

One of the ‘management briefings’ held as part of the Guardian HE summit was on online learning. The leaders of the session were from an US company which owned two universities and provided a range of online material for both resident and distance learning students. I was hoping that the seminar would introduce a different model of working but all that was demonstrated was a VLE implementation that didn’t appear to be very different from those offered at many institutions.

What was of more interest was the back up support to both the faculty staff looking to develop material and the students. The faculty staff received training and received support from a back up team of 20. Around 30% of those faculty that start training drop out – the most common reason being that they were unable to adapt to putting their material across in an online environment. The faculty work with instructional specialists who look to ensure that best practice is followed and that the resulting material is motivating and engaging. They also quality assure the material regularly utilising an external agency to peer review both the individual modules and the programmes as a whole (and presumably since the company owns two for profit universities, that the material still has commercial value).

There are various levels of support available for the students. In addition to pointing to additional resources that might be of use for each module, one institution had developed a self help system using avatars to lead the student to the answer. The demonstration only gave a taster of the system but I couldn’t really see the value of the avatar other than being a friendly face.

The students were also able to provide feedback to their instructors/faculty from within the system – this has led to a body of data on the usefulness and usability of the material but as yet the institution has yet to analyse the data to see if there are any trends or lessons to be learned.

The session concluded with a presentation from Russell Stannard, a lecturer at the University of Westminster. Russell won the THE award for the outstanding ICT initiative of the year for establishing his website which highlighted the use of relatively simple technology to develop a series of short ‘how to’ training videos. He is now experimenting with using the same technology to provide aural and visual feedback to students on their coursework. It will be interesting to see whether the students respond more positively to this feedback rather than the written comments that normally accompany marked coursework. I suspect that they will (essentially they will be getting a mini-tutorial in their marked coursework) and that it will allow easier identification of problem areas to focus on during tutorials.

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