Online learning can be an attractive alternative to on-campus study for some people, able to fit more easily around their existing commitments, but how do universities ensure online students enjoy the same rich learning experience? Paula Shaw, Academic Manager at the University of Derby Online Learning (UDOL), explores the benefits of a ‘virtual campus’.
Online students generally choose this route for study because, unlike the on-campus approach, it can be made to fit around their lifestyle. They may live too far away, move house regularly (military personnel, for example) have family commitments or work full time, which can make it impossible for them to take several years out to attend a traditional university.
As a lifelong online learner myself, achieving my Masters with the Open University, I am passionate about making sure our students have an enjoyable and deeply rewarding learning experience which mirrors that of their on-campus counterparts.
The human face of online learning
For a student’s online learning experience to truly work for them, it has to offer far more than just PowerPoint presentations of a course’s topics and emails from faceless tutors. Students need to feel confident that they are getting the same high-quality teaching (often from the same academics as our on-campus students) and have the same opportunities for stimulating group discussion and support.
To ensure students get the most out of their online learning experience, it is important to bring humanity into the online environment. We purposely monitor our group sizes to get the best out of group and tutor conversations – our tutors get to know students as ‘real people’ in their groups, encouraging engagement and offering individual stretch and support.
Students learn through a combination of activity-based interactive content created by our academics, and facilitated online discussion forums, which on a basic level work in a similar way to Facebook, in that people can post discussions to their group at a time that suits them. Live webinar sessions similar to Skype are also held, where students can interact in real time with their tutor and other students, with sessions recorded so they can be revisited later.
Creating a wider ‘virtual campus’
When designing our online offer, my philosophy is always: “The IT will not teach our students – that is our job.” The IT functions more like our bricks and mortar, the equivalent to our conventional estate, within which our online students can access our academics, support and facilities.
A truly immersive online learning environment should offer a full ‘virtual campus’, with the same personalised opportunities outside of their course through one-to-one access to librarians, careers advice and wellbeing guidance. By adopting a whole-University approach to online support, students based at our other campuses at Buxton and Chesterfield can also benefit from easy access to these central services.
Online learning and inclusivity
At UDOL, around 40% of our students have disabilities, compared to the University average of 14%. This reflects a similar global online trend, where students say that they benefit from an inclusive space for all learners and some flexibility, which enables them to complete study sessions in their own time and at their own pace. There is the added benefit of online being a very visible, permanent form of learning – there is no need to take lecture notes and everything can be reviewed and revisited as many times as the student needs.
When designing any piece of course content, it must be accessible to all our students and easily navigated, understood and interacted with. Any video content, for example, is likely be accompanied by a transcript for those who find the written word easier to understand, while pages are designed to work with screen reader software to convert on-screen content into text-to-speech or Braille.
The future of online learning?
The possibilities for online learning are endless, as new tools and ways to interact remotely become available. When you consider how much the way we communicate has changed in the 15 years since Facebook launched, with billions of people now using social media to discuss ideas with like-minded individuals from across the globe, it is truly an exciting time for online learning.
In August, Paula received a National Teaching Fellowship – the most prestigious individual award in higher education – in recognition of her outstanding impact on student outcomes and the teaching profession. Find out more here.