Creating a digital experience

Introducing a more personal element will be increasingly important in getting the online delivery mix right, says Ian Dunn

By Ian Dunn, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience), Coventry University 

Students want HE that’s more shaped to fit their lives; the UK system needs to be able to offer more access and places. And yet online programmes have yet to become accepted as a credible option. 

In his last speech as Vice-Chancellor at The Open University, Martin Bean highlighted the danger of HE in the UK becoming ‘irrelevant’ unless it learns to do more with digital. With his background at Microsoft and other technology firms, he will have felt the sharp difference between how digital technologies have been exploited between the business and education sectors. 

Rather than just focusing on ‘innovation’, on new ventures such as MOOCs, the real progress is substantially in the basics: creating a digital experience for students that works. 

Part of our approach is to collaborate with an online degree specialist from the US, PlattForm, and to tap into their experience and new ideas taken from the rapid changes taking place among US institutions. The UK-based operation of PlattForm, for example, will be working with the University to develop the process – from marketing and recruitment through to delivery – on two new programmes for Coventry University College. An important innovation being introduced is the Student Success Advisor, a kind of ‘study buddy’.

Each student who signs up to the new courses will have their own personal mentor, someone who gets to know them and their background, their situation when it comes to fitting study into their work or family life. They then stay with the student throughout the length of the programme, staying in touch both by phone and online to build up a relationship and give support and advice to keep them motivated. All the advisors are being recruited on the basis of people skills and empathy, with the right background of both HE and juggling time in order to be a human service not reading from a script. This leaves the education provider to focus on the admission of the student, as normal, and then the teaching and academic content. 

Another approach is through Coventry University’s new Disruptive Media Learning Lab – bringing together education developers, learning technologists, serious games experts and librarians – we’re trying to tackle the issue head-on and find new ways to use digital technologies to make learning flexible and accessible, including open source and open access content, augmented reality and mobile and content that’s ‘geolocative’ (relating to your location). 

Introducing a more personal element will be increasingly important in getting the online delivery mix right. Personal coaching, greater use of social media networks for collaboration with fellow students and more online access to tutors – which, in principle, could provide students with more quality contact time than through classroom-based courses. ‘Gamification’ – the use of approaches from computer gaming to incentivise participation and actions, reaching ‘levels’ and earning rewards – may seem trite in the context of degree study. But there is potential for elements of gamification to be used to encourage the basics, like regular access of resources, completion of tasks, participation in online events and sharing ideas.

We don’t need digital for digital’s sake. But in the current context there are very specific challenges in HE that a successful online experience and offering will help address. In particular, it will be the credible, high-quality online courses that will be critical for opening up HE to more people in work looking to up-skill or change careers; for more postgraduate study; and also to help UK institutions extend their reach overseas without relying on students physically coming into the UK.

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