January 24, 2022

Taking the lead: tackling the challenges of moving campus-based courses online

Events of the last two years have heralded unprecedented developments in the higher-education sector, forcing organisations to transition to remote learning at a highly accelerated pace.


The imposition of a swathe of national lockdown orders in the first half of 2020 forced a radical and comprehensive review of teaching, learning and assessment strategies. And, while uncertainty still reigns, it seems likely that even after most – or even all – Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, the balance of face-to-face, blended, and online learning may well shift for good.


Resetting the default

Managing an emergency response to a global crisis is one thing but planning and executing a comprehensive strategy that will establish a new, more fluid, approach to learning in the long term is quite another.


If the rapid transition from in-person to remote learning has taught us anything, it’s that there are no shortcuts to achieving excellence; shoehorning traditional degree programmes into a different delivery system doesn’t work. Navigating this new digital landscape isn’t about applying a few minor tweaks to tried-and-tested course materials. Rather, it calls for a radical re-examination of every aspect of educational provision – including student support, engagement and retention – with the aim of elevating learning outcomes across the board.


So, how can universities overcome the hurdles to create a rich and rewarding higher-education experience for all? For those organisations that have been defined largely by their campus-based reputation, many challenges lie ahead, including:

  • Creating high-quality content that will provide as fulfilling an experience for teachers and students engaging remotely as it does for their campus-based counterparts.
  • Balancing synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities to promote flexible access while maintaining motivation and facilitating all-important human connections.
  • Providing an enriched environment that supports students holistically, even where they lack physical access to campus-based services and social groups.
  • Investing in the right technology – and EdTech partners – to offer participation opportunities for the widest possible cohort, including those with the need for additional accessibility considerations.


Re-evaluating content for online programmes

When in-person programmes move online, learning becomes more reliant on materials and resources than on the interplay of lectures, discussions, and seminars that, for many, define the campus experience.


The content, resources, and pedagogy designed for in-person learning may hinder student engagement in an online setting, which means that teachers must reassess the value of various course components, rejecting or redesigning those that no longer serve their purpose. Research suggests that, if they are to take full advantage of the new digital opportunities that await, universities must be willing to innovate and adopt new practices rather than relying on adapting existing ones.


Focusing on the steps learners will need to take to master their material is key. High-quality course materials that extend knowledge and support autonomy are a fundamental part of any successful learning programme. However, it’s important that teaching tools should underpin rather than dictate teaching and learning styles.


Creating a balance of synchronous and asynchronous resources, as well as a mix of media types that serves individual learners’ needs will enable the essential provision of personalised pathways and tailored support. Too much synchronous learning can create a regime that doesn’t allow sufficient time for reflection and consolidation.


Similarly, pacing content with staged assignment due dates will make progress easier for both students and teachers.


Students and teachers alike will face fresh challenges

While student requirements are often the focus of academic deliberations on how to manage the switch from in-person to remote learning, teachers must also re-examine their approach.


The skills required to deliver effective online courses are significantly different from those developed for a face-to-face setting. Research consistently shows that teachers need to find new ways to communicate, to deliver course material and to establish productive, trusting relationships with students if they are to lead successful programmes online as well as on campus. Moreover, some studies have concluded that teachers’ past successes in traditional classroom and lecture theatre formats aren’t necessarily predictive of their ability to teach effectively online.


Teachers need to be keenly aware of the barriers learners will face in a virtual setting, adjusting their style to compensate for the lack of physical context, including:

  • Planning and designing activities to accommodate differing levels of ability and self-regulation so all students can participate productively in online learning experiences.
  • Providing social communication channels to simulate the student to student and student to teacher interactions that are part and parcel of campus life.
  • Facilitating the spaces needed to engage in a range of teaching and discussion activities that promote the shared exploration of ideas, materials, and resources.


Moving away from traditional face-to-face teaching practices means tackling the ‘cultural barriers’ embedded in the default delivery blueprint – changing teaching’s ‘default’ setting by embracing digitalisation. For many teachers, this involves supplementing existing practices while embedding new ones in their repertoire.


Building textured learning communities

When students are taken out of traditional campus environments, they have fewer opportunities for developing the social connections that anchor learning and growth. Separated by geography – and often by time – they must be carefully guided to explore and establish a sense of community.


Social isolation can be debilitating. Without the support of a strong virtual learning network, students are more likely to experience a higher cognitive load, leading to struggles with time management and hitting deadlines. Conversely, students who feel deeply connected to a learning community are less likely to drop out. Regularly checking in with students, providing ‘third places’ for social chat, and facilitating collaborative discussions and peer-to-peer support groups can be transformative.


Well-being and mental health is an area of renewed focus for universities, especially where students studying remotely can’t access the usual in-person resources. Some organisations are working to build fresh support options, including partnering with other universities and utilising local in-country support services.


Scaling up universities’ online education capabilities

Before 2020, few campus-based universities had managed to either successfully develop and deliver large-scale, fully online degree courses or to turn them into revenue streams, despite the widespread desire to incorporate a greater element of online learning within traditional learning programmes.


If higher education institutions are serious about scaling up their online offering, they need to develop an education strategy closely aligned with on-campus, blended and hybrid programmes that allows for a significant investment in skills, together with provision for key partnerships with EdTech providers – online partnership management (OPM) companies and online platform providers, for example – where internal resources are insufficient.


Universities will often have to consider opportunities for revenue growth and greater commercialisation in the context of their broader commitment to social mobility and widening participation or to expanding access for underserved groups. For this reason, any online education strategy must be embedded within – rather than existing adjacent to – the core business of the university.


Moving into a new era

Handled well, universities could use the current constraints to forge a more flexible, collaborative, and interactive experience for all students, regardless of their chosen study base – but only if they continue to evolve at speed. The deep-seated need to innovate in course development as well as in its delivery – incorporating pedagogical and technological considerations – will be of existential importance.


There are pitfalls ahead – but there are also opportunities for those willing to invest in a new approach that offers greater flexibility, without jettisoning the collegiate community which is such an integral part of the higher education journey for many. Those universities that discover impactful ways of preserving the social, participation and community elements of a campus-based programme, while empowering students to become co-authors of their own learning experience, will continue to make the fresh and meaningful connections with new learners that will ensure they survive and thrive in the future.




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