February 23, 2022

Successful strategies for designing and delivering high-quality online learning

As demand grows for online learning options that are as comprehensive and effective as their campus-based counterparts, forward-thinking higher education organisations are exploring strategies that will help them deliver high-quality, full-featured programmes of study in remote, blended and hybrid formats.


It’s a shift that marks a watershed in higher education provision and one that – if handled with courage and vision – could transform access to lifelong learning options for millions.


For many institutions, the recent imperative to move programmes online has meant rapidly adapting existing learning materials to suit remote access and replacing in-person meetings with online video-conferencing sessions, while often retaining set timetables for synchronous lectures and tutorials. While these arrangements have acted as an essential short-term stopgap, they have fallen short of what most students would regard as their ideal university experience.


It’s a complex picture. The provision of tuition is just one element of the complete HE package; the wider experiential infrastructure that includes group assignments, careers guidance, pastoral care and social clubs has evolved to support students’ broader academic and personal development across their university years. Replicating the breadth and depth of the student experience without the familiar campus touchpoints is, to say the least, challenging. It’s a long-term project that will require care, creativity, and commitment, as well as effective EdTech implemented by skilled staff.


How can universities take their vast knowledge and experience, delivering it at scale – and at a distance – without losing the essence of what it means to be a student embarking on a great educational adventure? What strategies will enable these organisations to reimagine the traditional HE experience for a new digital era?


Make it online by design

Optimal course design doesn’t begin with the tech, but with a desire to make online learning the very best it can be. Creating a comprehensive and personalised online student experience involves significant investment and the determination to produce a programme that’s not a pale imitation of the campus-based format but one that’s uniquely suited to remote study.


A critical assessment of an organisation’s online provision – perhaps using focus groups and surveys – is a good way to establish how current programmes are performing against expectations from a variety of student demographic types. As online models will inevitably vary in their reach and complexity, it’s worth considering outsourcing programme design and delivery to expert providers. Customisable models enable universities to create bespoke programmes that can support greater engagement and motivation among a highly dispersed student body.


Champion great teaching

Just because sessions are held remotely rather than in person, it doesn’t follow that the teaching experience is automatically downgraded. In fact, high-quality teaching is central to the provision of a consistently high-quality student experience. Naturally, the nature of teaching is altered when lessons and tutorials are delivered in a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous formats, offering apparently fewer – or, at least, fewer spontaneous – opportunities for student/teacher and student/student interactions. However, the best online teachers adapt their style to suit the medium, stepping outside the comforts of the traditional pedagogical model to forge compelling new ways of engaging. When teachers harness the power of tech to enhance the teaching and learning experience, rather than considering it as an exercise in pragmatism, it can open the door to extraordinary innovation.


Underpinning this journey of improvement involves moving beyond makeshift techniques like video conferencing, instead focusing on the design, development and implementation of pathways that will form a blueprint for tech-enhanced higher education provision in the years ahead.


Enrich the student experience

Providing easily navigable device-agnostic learning platforms that enable swift access to engaging personalised content and seamless integration with a range of additional services and resources – like libraries and careers advice – is key to the success of any online programme.


Online courses usually offer students more flexible study options via a greater range of channels and media, from any location – especially if there’s due consideration for students with slower connections or with mobile-only access. There’s also great potential for universities to provide resources with production values comparable to top-notch film and TV entertainment; some institutions are already investing in award-winning producers and directors to create compelling multimedia lessons.


But thought should also be given to ways in which students can tap into other assessment, time-management and motivational tools that will help track progress, maintain momentum, and keep short- and long-term goals in sharp focus. Students who have a good holistic understanding of course requirements from the outset are more likely to meet their milestones with greater confidence – a process that needs more mindful attention from teachers and course designers without the context of a campus setting.


Build in robust guidance and support

With human contact more limited in online courses, it’s likely that providers will need to leverage AI and analytics tools to detect and respond to students’ needs with real-time feedback and support. Algorithms can be used to predict future requirements based on existing searches and queries, responding with relevant content. But it’s also possible for systems to issue alerts in response to low student engagement and to prompt human intervention where students need extra help such as one-to-one coaching or counselling.


It’s also crucial to provide opportunities for personal interactions – enabling students to connect with each other for peer support. Universities’ sports and social clubs are already staging a wide range of virtual events – some held in tandem with in-person gatherings to promote greater cohesion among an increasingly dispersed student body. At a local level, many are also partnering with a nationwide network of community bodies to make students aware of initiatives in their immediate area – such as volunteering.


Offer real-life opportunities

Ambitious HE providers are trialling resources like virtual reality (VR) labs, 3D games and simulations to enable students to practise their skills in near-real-world settings. This type of instruction is crucial in programmes where access to laboratories and other cutting-edge facilities is part and parcel of traditional campus degree courses.


Integrating workplace learning into academic programmes of study has been a core part of many degree programmes to date, allowing students to acquire first-hand industry insights, developing their awareness of workplace culture, and polishing so-called ‘soft’ skills like communication and leadership. While it’s harder to pull off placements for online students, universities are beginning to introduce online internships, delivered in partnership with employers in all regions. Aligning programme content and delivery to real-world skills requirements could be key to the long-term sustainability of online courses.


Consider the bigger picture

Although the existential challenges to established universities are real, so are the opportunities for growth and development beyond what might have seemed possible just a few decades ago.


The organisations most likely to establish themselves at the vanguard of this movement are those that offer well-thought-out courses, integrated tech platforms and a robust student support infrastructure – those universities that have invested in a ground-up model designed to deliver an exceptional learning experience, location notwithstanding.


The appetite for well-constructed, accessible, and respected online degree programmes has been increasing for some time. Perhaps the fault lines that have fractured the business-as-usual status in institutions around the world will carve a fresh opening for an approach that could ultimately help universities reach a much wider – and potentially more profitable – global audience.



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