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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Flexible learning in uncertain times 3: Strategic management and planning


Written by
Dr Clare Sansom, CDE Fellow

The third webinar organised by the Centre for Online and Distance Education at the University of London for the University’s recognised teaching centres (RTCs) focused on strategic management and planning, as the University and its centres move out of the immediate crisis and look towards the forthcoming academic year.

Like previous webinars in this series, it was introduced by the head of the CDE, Dr Linda Amrane-Cooper. It was a co-presentation by the two CDE fellows who are executive leads for research and dissemination, both distinguished educationalists: Professor Stylianos Hatzipanagos and Professor Alan Tait. Alan and Stylianos are also co-chairs of the CDE’s established and successful RIDE conference series.

In most countries it is likely that campus-based provision will only be possible for some students for some of the time during 2020-21, and all institutions must expect rapid and unpredictable changes. We will therefore need to be prepared to offer a blended and flexible pattern of on/offline learning. However, out of crisis comes opportunity: if we think strategically and prepare thoroughly, we will be able to offer a blended experience that enhances teaching and learning and provides value long after the pandemic has passed. An essential student experience can be divided into nine basic components:

  1. Individual study
  2. Interactions between individual students and teachers
  3. Interactions between student groups and teachers (lectures or webinars)
  4. Interactions between students
  5. The ‘flipped classroom’ where students prepare for a session outside the classroom and then come in to discuss the work in a seminar
  6. Synchronous and asynchronous learning activities: many students, particularly those working with poor connections, value the asynchronous approach
  7. Access to learning materials
  8. Academic, social and emotional student support
  9. Formative and summative assessment.

Students whose experience is wholly or largely based on e-learning will experience these in a different way from those who are campus-based; managers and planners should try to ensure that the experience is as rich and rewarding for them as for their peers. Alan and Stylianos grouped their discussions and recommendations into three main areas: access to learning materials, support for students, and support and training for staff.

Access to Learning

A blended model of education clearly cannot succeed if students don’t have the kit to enable them to work equally well from the campus, their flats or hall bedrooms and their parents’ homes. Phones and perhaps tablets are unlikely to be versatile enough to provide access to a full range of resources for learning: most students will need laptops, and RTC managers will need to think about whether, or to what extent, it is the centres’ responsibility to provide them. Just as importantly, students will need fast, reliable and affordable broadband connections, and licenses for any essential apps and programs that are not open access. Furthermore, accessibility is as key an issue in an online environment as it is on campus. Students should not be put at a disadvantage by, for example, a visual impairment; a learning difficulty such as dyslexia; or a lack of essential digital skills. The last named, which can be a problem for staff as well as students, can readily be addressed by training.

Student Support

The coronavirus lockdown took place half-way through the academic year 2019-20, when students had already formed cohesive cohorts that they could look to for support. This will not be as easy for those who start their studies in the coming autumn term; they may well struggle to build cohesion in an environment where normal contact is most likely, and most often, virtual. Even when it is possible for students to meet face to face, priority should now be given to facilitating informal as well as formal online interaction. Even after the pandemic has been controlled, students will not have equitable access to face-to-face environments and activities, as those who are more physically vulnerable are unlikely to feel safe enough to come in, and the more introverted may simply choose to stay away. But we cannot build the rich online environment that we would all like to see without serious investment of time and skills in building a supportive digital infrastructure.

Staff Development 

This implies that if teaching staff are to thrive in this new, blended environment they will need much more than simply the skills to run a successful session in Teams, Zoom or Collaborate. The pandemic has accelerated a long-term trend towards digital education, and we must all adapt our pedagogy accordingly. As formal lectures become less important, teaching staff will need to shift from the old ‘sage on the stage’ model of education to the ‘guide on the side’, where a teacher’s main job is to help students to learn and to find their own resources. They should be fully rewarded for making these changes, and any potential threats to their professional standing dissipated. It will also be important to encourage a culture of resource-sharing (which is not necessarily common in higher education), co-teaching and the use of open educational resources.

In a sense, the next academic year will be an experiment in blended learning that we can take forward as – hopefully, with drugs, vaccines, and a measure of luck – the virus retreats and the situation stabilises. We should use it to collect evidence to inform our strategy, observing how learners behave in the new environments, capturing their experience of that learning, and collating statistical information from learning analytics. In this way, we will be able to use the crisis as an opportunity to improve the quality of our provision in the long term.

To conclude, Linda reminded us all that the CDE will be available to help staff in the RTCs and beyond prepare for the coming academic year, which will, as Alan and Stylianos had discussed, be challenging and rewarding in so many ways.

View the webinar recording