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What will it take to create an outstanding online experience for international students?

26 March 2020

Dr David Lefevre, Director of the Ed Tech lab at Imperial College London, describes a three-stage process to navigate the current move to online provision. Dr Lefevre is the founder of Insendi, an online learning experience platform and development company which is part of Study Group. 

This article was also published in a shorter form by the Times Higher Education on 25 March, 2020.

Study Group is proud to be home to online learning specialists Insendi, whose research-informed online higher education work is used by leading university business schools around the world. Incendi’s founder, Dr David Lefevre, has written about the development of high quality online education for international students both in the immediate and longer term.

Study Group is fully committed to the very best possible education for students as they pursue their ambitions to study at universities across the world. As more international students are currently undertaking studies online, we are working closely with Insendi’s experts and universities to ensure studying online helps students to achieve their dreams.

In a month unlike any of us have ever experienced, universities across the world have had to quickly mobilise and move their entire teaching operations to online format. Projects that would take months or years to complete under normal circumstances have been compressed into days, and the traditional objections to online teaching have been cast aside. We have witnessed innovation at an unprecedented scale and the world of teaching has experienced a paradigm shift. There will be a new normal once we all emerge from the shadow of COVID-19.

No wonder the academy is reeling. However, there may be no time to pause and reflect. It is likely that our efforts over the past week will serve as a temporary fix. Once again, we need to regroup and look forward.

In many cases, the move to online classes has comprised sticking to existing timetables while delivering classes in webinar format. The effort required has been considerable and the general smoothness in which this transition has been achieved is extraordinary. However, within a few weeks, students will become restless with the one-dimensional nature of this experience and some will begin to disengage. Calls for reimbursement of fees, while from a small minority, will start to attract attention. Incoming students, particularly at postgraduate level, may decide to defer over concerns that their anticipated learning experience will be compromised.

Despite the leadership my colleagues at Imperial have taken in modelling the current pandemic, none of us can know for sure how long the present disruption to teaching will last. It would therefore seem prudent to plan for a scenario beyond a few weeks. In other words, we need to ensure that our online provision quickly evolves beyond the current temporary fix into a more engaging and pedagogically minded format. A number of institutions are now conceptualising the transition problem in terms of a three stage process which I think is helpful.

Stage 1 – Stabilise

This is where we are now. The focus is on putting content online in the most expedient manner possible to enable students to continue studying while campuses are closed. Generally speaking the format of the online classes is synchronous in nature with out-of-class activities remaining unchanged from the face-to-face courses.

Stage 2 – Enhance

Recognising that the methods adopted at Stage 1 will not prove sustainable beyond a few weeks, thoughts turn to how the enhance the learning experience. Unfortunately, traditional approaches to online learning fail us here too. Until now, the time taken to develop high quality online courses has ranged from three months to two years, with a six-month lead-time being most common. In the UK, universities will likely want to move to an enhanced format after the Easter break, at the start of the summer term. This gives institutions just a few weeks to mobilise and implement an enhanced online pedagogy at scale.

Once again faculty and professional staff will need to galvanise thoughts and determine a format for Stage 2. One that can be rapidly designed, developed and implemented across the institution. In many cases this format will require a greater focus on asynchronous activities, provide more frequent opportunities for feedback, bolster existing support structures and have a focus on fostering community. Conceptualising these approaches in simple frameworks that can be readily communicated to staff and students is likely to prove most effective.

Stage 3 – Innovate

This is the phase for which institutions may be able to plan and implement in a more traditional manner, as long as quick decisions to do so are made now. Current restrictions may no longer be in place at the start of the new academic year in September 2020 however effects will certainly linger. Online learning will have proved not just viable but preferable for an increased number of both students and faculty. The lack of clarity during the present period, during which offers are being considered, will cause some students to cancel or defer their studies. Should an economic recession occur, then we may witness an increase in postgraduate studies. International students, in particular, may be susceptible to changing their plans given the additional commitment to move overseas. In response, universities may want to immediately start scenario planning for potential adjustments to their teaching portfolios for the 2020/2021 academic year.

It is at Stage 3 that traditional approaches to online learning become viable once more. However, these will likely prove obsolete. The considerable innovation being witnessed in Stage 1 will continue or accelerate during Stage 2. Online learning will evolve to embrace new pedagogies. Face-to-face teaching will embrace technology. Blended learning programmes will proliferate.

It is fortunate that educational technology, and technology in general, has evolved so rapidly over the past decade that our universities have been able to continue classes in online form rather than simply closing down. Planning now for each of the three stages outlined above will help institutions navigate the current crisis and emerge well prepared to address the new normal of the post COVID-19 landscape.

Technology now enables institutions to create high quality online and blended courses that delight students and that teachers love to teach. In these desperate times, the academy is sowing seeds that will enable us to move rapidly towards the adoption of these technologies at scale. Higher education will continue, but differently. There will be new ways to discover, to understand, and to build a better world through education.

About the author

Dr David Lefevre is the Director of the Ed Tech lab at Imperial College London and founder of Insendi, a Higher Education on-line learning experience platform and development company which is part of Study Group.

“I started teaching my first online courses in higher education in 2003. I had graduated in computing and was completing my PhD in instructional systems at Imperial College in London. I had developed a deep interest in how technology could support and enhance education and wanted to explore how pedagogical principles and technology could work together. Shortly afterwards, I founded Imperial’s specialist Edtech lab which focused on the development of high quality online courses, including full online degree programmes. Insendi, an Edtech spin out from Imperial, is now delivering an innovative platform and design services globally to universities and business schools from Singapore to New York.”

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