A few things we’ve learnt about online delivery – part 3

Ok, this is my final post outlining what we’ve learnt about online learning over the last few months running several courses for over 2000 students. You can also read part 1 and part 2 in the series.

8: Communication and clear information is more important than ever

One thing that we found really important during our summer programme was establishing very clear channels of communication with both students and teachers. When suddenly everything goes online, you realise how much you miss the ability to go into a room and actually remind people about stuff, or how useful it is for students or staff to be able to ask for clarification from their teacher or team leader when they weren’t sure about something.

For teachers one thing we’d been doing for several years now but became more important than ever this year was using an online teacher portal where all the relevant documents and information regarding the course could be accessed. We use Google Sites for this and it allows us to embed a variety of Google documents into it to update information when needed. For example, we have a daily noticeboard where any updated information about the course is put and this is just a Google doc that teachers have view-only access to but which the course directors can edit. You can see a gallery from the portal below.

Normally on our summer schools we have a series of physical staffrooms dotted around the campus with around 20+ teachers in each and a couple of team leaders. This is a place to access computers, printing and any additional book resources they need. These were vital places for both information and socialisation for the teachers. 

Moving online, we wanted to reproduce something similar so set up a series of virtual staff rooms using Google Chat. Each had a team leader and around 20 staff in it, and it was a place for daily check-ins, reminders, as well as a chance for teachers to ask questions about the course that they might have forgotten. 

We understand that nothing can really replace a physical staffroom, but we felt that this was a pretty good online alternative. By breaking these chat rooms down into smaller numbers made it more accessible and it meant the amount of information in them was never too overwhelming. 

For students it was a little trickier as most of them were based in China and they didn’t have access to the university’s Google services. However, we relied heavily on the announcements section of our VLE, Blackboard, and made sure that was the first page they saw as soon as they logged on. Anything posted to the announcements was also sent to their email, so there was a reasonable chance they picked up the message. 

9: Traditional teacher roles need to change

The last few months have brought into sharp focus the need to reconceive the roles – and possibly the contracts – of teachers. Over the last six months many of our teachers have had to take on different roles to meet the demands of online or blended delivery, such as developing digital content or lesson plans or providing technical support for teachers and students. And in many cases these were full-time secondments with no teaching involved. 

Teachers’ jobs are still largely defined by the number of teaching hours they do and filling their timetable with hours and filling their classes with students is the financial bread and butter of most centres. Teachers might get a temporary reduction in hours for a special project or specific role, but in the end it’s the classroom hours that matter. 

But what happens when those teaching hours disappear? Looking ahead to next term, many of our courses will either be fully online or blended and a good chunk of student hours will be taken up with ‘asynchronous content’ or ‘guided study’. The question is, what form will that asynchronous content/guided study take and who is going to develop and create it? 

From my own experiences, developing good online content is a skilled and lengthy process, not everyone can do it and if there are teachers that can, they need to be given the time and space to do so. They can’t be expected to do it with a few hours of remission a week. It’s better that they devote all their time to doing this while their teaching hours can be taken up by teachers who are not so confident developing this type of content. 

Schools and centres need to develop professionalised teams of content developers and learning technologists to ensure that the quality of materials students are receiving and the quality of teaching they are getting is as high as if they were studying face to face. But this is going to take a mental shift by management as well as a financial commitment to provide training and support. 

10: Don’t panic, it’s still the human touch that people want

I feel like for some people I might have been portraying a somewhat dystopian future where we are all sat in rows behind banks of computers delivering remote content and classes to students. Or worse, our jobs will at some point be taken over by some super-intelligent computer programme that can replicate a teacher almost perfectly. 

I hope that’s not the case, and I don’t think it will be based on my experiences of delivering online courses to students and teachers over the last few years. What has come through consistently from both students and teachers is that the thing they appreciate most in an online course is the human contact and personal attention they get. 

Just one example to back this up. During the summer I put out an announcement to students asking for some of them to meet me online to check some technical issues we were having with our VLE and students in China accessing documents. Given how busy the student were with their course and how dull the task I wanted them to do was I assumed we would get very little uptake. But…

We were inundated with students agreeing to do it and in the end I could only meet with a small percentage of them. When I met with some of them and asked them why they agreed, they said that it was more opportunity to practise English with real people. 

Sometimes online courses are seen as the promised land financially as they allow high volume of students with minimal teacher involvement. But a course without human presence and individual feedback is never going to appeal to students. Certainly from my own experience of trying to complete numerous MOOCs in the last few years on future learn and similar platforms, the one thing that always causes my interest to drop off is the feeling that there’s noone really ‘there’ listening to me. 

So, there is still a place for the teacher in this new landscape, but they will need help, reassurance and training to navigate it. 


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