Digital degree delivery

The current student body, Generation Ys and Millennials, want to be challenged, not lectured to, says Nancy Coleman

Until recently, high drop out rates among online learners in HE have hampered the growth of digital delivery of degrees – adding to the misperception that online learning can’t provide a first-class learning experience.

Some have argued that online students can’t be engaged in the same way, the commitment is not the same, particularly when online degree students, typically adult learners, tend to have more distractions in terms of work and family commitments. But why? Digital technology is now embedded as part of daily life, familiar and practical. The issue is that universities – and to an extent, students themselves – have not yet made the transition to accepting the idea of digital delivery and relationships, and seeing the potential for different forms of interaction to stimulate learning. 

In the US, acceptance of online degrees has turned a corner. Forecasts suggest more than half of US students will be taking an online course by 2018. Researchers affiliated with Babson found that around 74% of academics believed online courses provided the same or better learning outcomes than traditional degrees, a figure that had risen sharply from a previous study. 

A key part of the changing attitudes in the US has been in the development of a highly student-centric online student experience. There are important lessons here for UK institutions in how to create a digital learning environment that works: 

Focus on student success, not just engagement

Rigorous programs in student engagement must be designed around the entire student experience, from their relationship with academics to study support to peer coaching and beyond. One particularly effective approach has been to provide each student with their own personal ‘success advisor’ who stays in touch regularly online and by phone ­– finding out more about their individual background and challenges and providing motivation and pastoral support.

Communication with the university must be an ongoing activity, one in which the student feels that the institution knows who they are, and is invested in and committed to their success. This cannot fall to the faculty alone, there needs to be an institutional commitment to success initiatives through the entire student lifecycle.

Provide constant feedback

Students will value positive reinforcement at accelerated rates. They want access to responses that tell them how they are doing and how they can do it better. Students – even mature students in their 30s and 40s – will not be able to remember a life before technology. They expect immediate information retrieval no matter where they are, as well as portability and tools that enable them to collaborate and communicate.

Focus on interaction

The recent and current student body, the Generation Ys and Millennials, want to be challenged, not lectured to. Online is the ideal environment for setting up opportunities for varied and open interactions within a structured environment. Programmes should include a full variety of options for interaction, whether it’s simple messaging boards and use of social media platforms for programme groups and discussion topics, or more formal online collaborative projects, online mentoring, and building digital work portfolios. The perception of the online learner as a solitary figure is a myth, students seek out and form communities to enable mutual support. 

Re-thinking material

Most academics in the US involved with online programmes have found the process of translating their course material to work in an online format a refreshing and stimulating experience. In order to be effective, content has to be re-thought and packaged in ways that encourage greater interaction, involve more independence and ensure effective learning. It’s important to build on ties with faculty and be prepared to offer new faculty both the tools they will need and an understanding of the existing best practices in online course development. One of the best ways to achieve the necessary orientation of faculty is by peer-to-peer learning, and by the use of skilled instructional designers who can assist teaching personnel in the creation of engaging content. 

Create clear structures

Millennials grew up in a culture where parents paid a lot of attention to them. Their social calendars were structured and scheduled. Multi-tasking is a way of life for them and they are good at it. Education must fit somewhere in that schedule and it is unlikely to be their sole focus at any one given time. 

Friendship and connection

Learners say they want to study with people with whom they feel a connection. They like being friends with fellow students and will group themselves accordingly. Social networking groups exist outside the classroom to provide the platform for global, virtual friendships to form and grow.

Globalism and Diversity

It’s likely that, with friends and classmates all over the world, future learners grew up seeing things as global, connected, and open for business 24/7. These elements form the very core of what attracts students to online education, and we will solidify their commitment to this delivery modality only if we enable these elements for them. As students continue to grow more sophisticated in their learning styles and motivations, so must we, as educators, adapt the online environment to meet the needs of tomorrow’s learners. 

Nancy Coleman is Vice-President of Academic Services at online degree and enrolment specialists PlattForm,

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