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Academic quality must drive online education

17 April 2020

Dr David LeFevre, founder of Insendi and Director of the EdTech Lab at Imperial College, writes for The PIE News about what really matters in online international education. 

As COVID-19 has swept across our world turning the expectations of individuals and countries, businesses and institutions on their heads, 2020 has felt to many of us like a new reality. Almost every aspect of our lives and communities depends as never before on the ability to connect online. Remote teaching and learning, virtual classrooms, online support and assessment are creating a new normal. The past feels like ever more distant. We wonder if we will ever return. 

As the Director of the EdTech Lab at Imperial College in London, I’ve been working at the interface between education and technology for 20 years and my company Insendi has supported academic and professional colleagues at leading Business Schools around the world in their efforts to build high-quality technology-enhanced online programmes. In the past those developments happened carefully, closely aligned to academic strategy and with all the rigour you would expect of the institutions involved. The move to online education was a strategic choice for a group of students who wanted to learn that way. 

But COVID-19 means online education delivery at scale and across the board, by necessity rather than choice. Is there anything to learn from those who underwent change in another time? 

The future of online international education 

International education has responded magnificently and at speed to a previously unimaginable scenario in which universities and pathway providers shut for face-to-face teaching and education moved online within a matter of days. Nobody anticipated that innovation would be fast-forwarded in this way but necessity has been the mother of invention. Congratulations are in order. Students have continued to learn, to be supported and assessed. International education did not collapse. 

In the rush to develop online capacity the focus has understandably been on implementing technology-based solutions fast. However, not all prior knowledge and experience is obsolete. Teacher support, pedagogy and care for students deserve just as much attention. Yes, IT infrastructure and support systems need to be reliable and robust, but we need to pay as much, if not more, attention to helping teachers and students adopt these technologies to best effect. We must remember that education is a profoundly human experience. For digital learning to be effective it must be designed as a pedagogically rich, human-cantered experience. One-size-fits-all solutions implemented across an institution will lead to poor experiences for the majority of students.  Technology needs to be flexible enough to support the rich tapestry of different teaching activities required across different subject areas and student groups, wherever they are in the world. 

Online learning at the top table of university strategy 

For this to work best, online learning will need to be where it always really belonged - at the heart of teaching and learning strategy.  The world may not revert to any kind of normal as quickly as we hope. It already looks likely that the present disruption will continue into the following academic year, a significant proportion of course delivery will need to be done online. 

Even once domestic students begin to return, we know international students may find it difficult to travel to their study destinations straight away. Online alternatives will ensure their education is not thrown completely off course by global events beyond their control, and everyone will benefit as a result. 

Within disruption lies opportunity, however challenging to see at the time. The innovation, infrastructure and knowledge gained from this crisis will change the way we teach and how we imagine new models of international education. In recent years, at almost all universities, investment in the physical campus has dwarfed that put into the virtual campus, often subsidised by international students. The present crisis should lead to reconsideration of this balance given the proportion of learning hours that will be delivered in the virtual campus. 

Academic development will need a greater focus on helping teachers rethink how to inform and challenge students in this new environment, how to facilitate online educational communities, how to acknowledge success and surface difficulty. Teaching strategy, quality assurance, accreditation, teaching evaluations and other teaching related matters will also need to adapt

Education first

Over time a teacher who becomes adept at adopting a range of technologies, including the emerging learning experience platforms such as Insendi, will be able to move beyond webinars and lecture recordings to create  dynamic, multi-faceted online learning experiences comprising sequences of experiential activities, labs, rehearsal exercises, presentations and ‘real world’ assignments, both as self-study and group work, synchronous and asynchronous, assessed and on-assessed,  all conducted within a supportive and community based environment.

Our experience has always been that success in online learning means putting teaching first and technology second. Technology is critical, of course, but its role should be to enable rather than determine outcomes. Teachers need to be in the driving seat and it will be they who are best placed to understand how students will move from A to B and to design learning experiences that will enable them to thrive. 

Dr David LeFevre is Director of the EdTech Lab at Imperial College London and the founder of Insendi, a learning platform company recently acquired by Study Group.

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