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The Opportunities and Challenges for Online Learning in Higher Education

Dr Diogo Casanova shares his thoughts on the opportunities and challenges of transforming the online learning environment to improve student satisfaction. 

By 2050, 90% of jobs will require some digital proficiency, yet 23% of adults lack basic digital skills. This combined with the fact that the most recent Digital Experience Insights Survey found that only 42% of students in HE agreed that their course prepares them for the workplace, meaning that 58% do not feel they are equipped with the adequate digital literacy skills when they graduate.

What exactly prompted the University of West London to embark on a university-wide transformation project to transition to a new online learning environment?

We knew, from student and staff surveys, that the version of Blackboard that we were using was a bit dated and that some of our practices, particularly in relation to assessment, could be improved if we made the right decisions with the new VLE.

We evaluated the current options in the market and made the decision that moving to the new version of Blackboard – Blackboard ULTRA - would respond to our needs as well as minimising the impact of moving completely to a new provider. It would also provide us with an excellent opportunity to upskill the academic staff digital literacies and pedagogical competencies by training them in a university-wide online learning and assessment design framework; and to incorporate, in this framework, a series of university policies and objectives around inclusive curriculum and teaching excellence.

What were/are some of the challenges and roadblocks you faced/are still facing during the implementation of the project?

  • The biggest challenge is to have the university wide support. The scale of the project and how it impacts the entire university recommends that we have buy-in from senior management, all academic schools and the different professional services, as well as the Student Union. The project needs to be seen, not as a department project, but as a wider university project where everyone is involved and as a role to play.
  • A second challenge is staff engagement. With us, until now, the buy-in we are having with the academic schools and senior management suggests that we will have very engaged academic staff. However, this is not always the case in HE, and some of the staff will be less supportive as we will be changing their existing use of learning technologies.
  • A third challenge is to ensure sustainability when we move to the business as usual stage and resources with support decrease. A good business case and a group of key stakeholders that are involved in the project from the inset are ways to mitigate some of these challenges.

What are some of the significant changes you observed in staff attitudes towards technology enhanced learning?

With regards to staff, having the space and a framework to think about the use of technology is what strikes me as the biggest change. Staff have been used to copy the materials from previous years either because they don’t have the skills to do something new or because there is an automatic copy system in place that duplicates previous modules. A new VLE impacts significantly as it disrupts this practice. If we have a mechanism in place that trains and supports the academic staff both in a good pedagogical framework and in the operational use of the VLE, then we will have academic staff engaged and enthusiastic, even appreciating that this will affect their workload. It also helps when our narrative during training aligns with students concerns and suggestions which is something we try constantly in our projects.

How important was the use of NSS data for the development and implementation of this project?

I guess this comes back to the previous point and it links with one of the most important foundations of good learning: relevance for the learner. Academic staff are constantly reminded every year of how important is the NSS and the quality of the student experience. There are different reasons why sometimes you don’t get a good result in the NSS and some of them do not depend on the quality of the teaching. However, it is difficult not to associate some of the questions of the NSS to the VLE as many questions can be linked to good learning and assessment design in the VLE. Hence, if we align some of the decisions of the pedagogical framework with the NSS and the possibility of raising the percentage of satisfaction of some of those questions, then we are providing relevance to the pedagogical framework and in consequence the training and the move to the new VLE. Similarly, to senior management you can use some of the questions of the NSS as a KPI to evaluate the impact of the move to the new VLE.

Can you share some advice for those who are looking to transform their learning environment and embrace different technologies in the classroom?

  • For the academic staff, if you want to transform the learning environment then technology should be used when it helps to tackle a challenge that can´t be tackled without technology or when you think that technology has the potential to develop new skills to the students or enhance their learning experience.
  • For senior managers and universities if you want to use technology to transform the learning environment you should firstly write a good business plan that aligns objectives and goals with university policy and practice – this will ensure relevance and sustainability. Secondly you should provide resources for implementation and have an active participation of all academic schools, student reps and central departments and thirdly you need to ensure that when the project finishes there is clear and ongoing support for the Business as Usual stage. Often when a big project finishes there is the temptation to start a new one without ensuring that we provide support to the one that finishes.