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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Jumping Online: Sustaining Quality Learning


Written by
Clare Sansom

Three months after lockdown, the initial educational emergency has passed. But we are only now beginning to appreciate how much everything has changed. It is clear that, at the very least, teaching during 2020-21 will be much more online than was expected even three months ago. Our online provision must now be sustainable into the long term, and it must offer students quality.

Following the initial Jumping Online: What have we learned webinar, this second of the CDE’s ‘Jumping Online’ webinars on Tuesday 23 June 2020, asked: How do we sustain quality learning online?  

The webinar, attended by 292 people, included two presentations:

  • Diana Laurillard, Professor of Learning with Digital Technologies, UCL Knowledge Lab, explored ways in which we can maintain quality pedagogy while avoiding staff overload.
  • Simon Rofe, Reader in the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS and Fellow of the CDE described and illustrated the value of online collaborative learning communities.

Diana gave three examples of how pedagogies that engage students in face-to-face settings can be replicated online and scaled up without consuming huge amounts of a lecturer’s time:

  • A masterclass, where each student in a small group receives feedback while the others observe, so all students benefit from each other’s feedback. A video of a masterclass with representative students can be placed online for use by an extended cohort with no further teacher input.
  • Peer review, where students review and grade drafts from other students before revising their own work in the light of what they have learned. Once this has been set up on a VLE, it can be run any number of times with little extra input from the teacher, other than providing the question rubric and grading the final versions.
  • Pyramid discussions, where a large group of students is divided into smaller ones. Each student individually answers an open question, the answers are discussed in the small groups, and each student votes for one answer to go forward for marking. Students benefit from the group discussions, and the teachers have a reduced marking load. This can be replicated well online with, if required, a more complex pyramid structure and much larger classes.

In discussion, webinar participants agreed that these activities could be expected to engage students well, and would run smoothly once set up, but they remained concerned about the amount of setup time. Diana recommended a web-based tool she developed, the Course Resource Appraisal Modeller (CRAM), which will estimate the teaching costs and student benefits of any course or activity, whether face-to-face, online or blended.

Simon introduced the idea of online learning communities (OLCs) in terms of the informal interactions that students on traditional courses enjoy outside their formal teaching. These can be   corridor conversations between classes, or longer discussions in the coffee shop after a class. Students expect and value this type of interaction in in-person studying. But students can be at a loss to imagine how it can be replicated online.

An online learning community tries to do just that, replicating the students’ informal community in a variety of different ways. Staff don’t have to make this happen, but they have to make sure that the digital tools are in place for it – although students will often set up a private WhatsApp group with no reference to the lecturer at all. Students also need to feel that such informal activities are legitimate in the unfamiliar online environment.

Simon’s experience in teaching and doing diplomacy has shown him the value of networks and the importance of activities that build them. Simple icebreaker-type activities or ‘e-tivities’, if well designed, can engage students and build community online in groups ranging from half-a-dozen postgraduates to a MOOC cohort of thousands. OLCs can lead to a flattened educational hierarchy. Some, although not all, disabled students can engage better online, and maintaining physical distance clearly represents less of a challenge. Time differences may be problematic, although such activities do not have to be wholly synchronous. 

Much of the discussion on OLCs focused on the needs of particular groups of students – such as those on the autism spectrum or diagnosed with ADHD – and how they can be encouraged to feel part of such an online community. Simon has had positive feedback from members of both of these groups. Others discussed examples of activities that work well in building community. One participant spoke particularly enthusiastically about students’ responses to one of Diana’s examples: peer review. Reservations were expressed about conventional icebreakers – they can feel frivolous, and a modular programme can involve too many icebreakers. Task-, subject- and course -focused icebreakers can be equally productive in forming relationships and communities, and at the same time feel more relevant.

The shape of the 2020-21 academic year is perhaps becoming clearer in outline – mainly, a shift towards  doing more online – while still murky in detail. It is very encouraging to know that so much work is going into developing engaging activities that students will benefit from in the ‘new normal’, whatever form that takes. Hopefully the best of these changes to practice will continue long after COVID-19 has passed into history.

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