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‘That won’t work here!’ What can campus universities learn from their distance-learning counterparts?
Read Dr Georgina Blakeley’s thoughts on what campus universities can learn from online and distance-based ones.*
The question of what, if anything, campus universities can learn from universities whose main business is distance-learning had been at the forefront of my mind as I returned to a position at the University of Huddersfield in July 2019 following over 13 years at the Open University. Little did I know just how useful my OU experience was going to turn out to be! Below I suggest a number of lessons that campus universities can learn from distance-learning institutions like the OU. These are lessons for longer term reflection rather than a guide of how to teach online in a hurry. Yet, it is important to start to capture lessons learned from the current crisis so we can all teach better in the future.
Lesson 1: work holistically as a teaching team
For those who have not had the opportunity to work at the OU, trying to describe how teaching materials are produced through the OU module team is difficult. Team work is essential to the production of teaching materials and each module team meeting is a learning experience. The closest way to describe it is to imagine that you regularly meet with colleagues to dissect the lecture and seminar notes you write word by word and line by line. While the process can be challenging, even uncomfortable at times, it leads to teaching materials that are holistic and often interdisciplinary.
Modules at the OU are produced in teams which develop content (print, audio-visual and online activities), map skills and design assessment across the module so that these are built and developed incrementally. This helps to achieve Bigg’s (2003) idea of constructive alignment so learning outcomes, teaching materials and assessment are not separate components designed in isolation but integral elements designed simultaneously and iteratively. In campus universities, staff tend to teach individual modules which students often study as isolated units without being aware of the whole to which they contribute. Both teachers and learners need a sense of the whole – how both content, skills and assessment fit together – so the point is not necessarily more team teaching but more team work in terms of how the curriculum is designed and delivered.
Lesson 2: use a blend of teaching tools
There is no such thing as the typical student. Even if one does not subscribe wholly to the idea of learning styles, students arrive at university with differing strengths and abilities, different needs and interests and preferred ways of learning. Teaching online doesn’t mean simply replicating face-to-face techniques in an online setting. Various resources such as animations, videos, audios, quizzes and online activities can be used to reinforce, extend and excite students’ learning. It is unlikely, for example, that a student will grasp a concept like social class just through having it explained in a lecture or reading about it in a book. Yet if this explanation is extended and reinforced through audio-visual material, for example, students’ understanding will be deeper and more authentic. Online activities can then be designed to check a student’s understanding as well as offering ways to plug gaps in knowledge and understanding.
Lesson 3: a blend of support mechanisms is as important as the teaching blend
It is common to talk about blended teaching but less common to talk about blended student support, yet a blend of support mechanisms is just as important when we consider the differing needs of students. This is as true of distance-learning students as it is of their campus counterparts. The commuter students at Huddersfield University who might struggle to spend much time on campus would benefit from many of the online support tools that distance-learning providers take for granted. These might include, for example, online induction sessions, online discussion boards and online peer mentoring. Social media can also be used creatively to build online communities.
There are many more lessons I could draw from my OU experience in addition to the three I have chosen above. In drawing these lessons, there is a danger that I have exaggerated the distinctiveness of the OU and over-simplified the ways in which campus universities teach and support their students. There is of course now more overlap than ever between different types of institutions and it is important we all learn from each other to adapt our teaching and student support to new and changing circumstances.
Biggs, J. (2003) Aligning teaching for constructive learning. Higher Education Academy. Available at: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/resource_database/id477_aligning_teaching_for_constructing_learning (accessed 22 July 2018).
Dr Georgina Blakeley is Director of Teaching, Learning and Student Experience, School of Human and Health Sciences, University of Huddersfield.
*This is a revised and abridged version of an article which was published in Educational Developments - Georgina Blakeley (2019), ‘That won’t work here!’ What can campus universities learn from their distance-learning counterparts?, Educational Developments, 20:4.