In April 2020, UBSS was forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to move from face-to-face to online lesson delivery. As the Information Technology (IT) Manager at UBSS, I was assigned the daunting task of implementing and testing, within a very short timeframe, all the IT infrastructure that would be required. I knew that the lecturers, the students, and I would learn many new things during this transition. But I did not realise just how much I would learn. In this article, I share three lessons I learned.
Lesson 1: Do not change too much, too quickly
For most UBSS staff, the transition to online lesson delivery was the most significant change in their working life in a very long time. I know that it was the most significant change for me during my 15 years with the School.
There is always a temptation when faced with the need for sudden change, to be all “gung-ho”, and change too many things too quickly (Nilson, 2017). When UBSS made the decision to introduce online learning, I immediately thought of all the new technology (both hardware and software) that we would need. I initially believed that due to the need to move quickly, we should make as many changes as we could as soon as we could.
What brought me back to reality was the realisation that I would not be the one using this new technology – it would be the lecturers and, to a lesser degree, the students. Since their IT skills ranged from excellent to minimal, and the system had to serve all users, I knew that changes had to be made in small steps. Hence, the initial transition to online learning consisted of leveraging our existing (and proven) hardware and software to get things going, and then implementing new technology one small step at a time. This incremental approach conferred two benefits: first, the lecturers did not have to learn many new procedures right at the start; and secondly, I had time to test new technologies thoroughly before implementing them.
Since this introductory phase was completed, the technology used at UBSS for online learning has been continuously improved and expanded. But it has been done slowly and very carefully.
The key lesson here: when implementing new technology, slow and steady wins the race.
Lesson 2. Remember who your customers are (they are not always who you think they are!)
When UBSS started the journey towards online learning, I firmly believed that our number one priority was to take care of our customers. And at the time, I thought that our students were our customers. After all, they are the ones who purchase our product and thus support our business. However, I later realised that from an IT perspective, the “customer base” is much wider. In fact, it comprises each person who uses any part of the UBSS IT infrastructure. It therefore includes all our staff and students.
This became very clear soon after the decision was made to introduce a high-quality online learning infrastructure system. In addition to asking the question “how easy would this be for our students to use?”, I had to ask, “how easy would this be for our lecturers to use?” After all, if the lecturers have difficulty using a new technology, it will not matter if the students find it easy or not – the student experience will suffer regardless. In fact, it could be argued that the “lecturer experience” is even more crucial for online learning, since how the lecturer performs when delivering an online lecture is probably the most influential part of the student online learning experience.
The key learning here: anyone who interacts with the IT infrastructure must be considered a “customer”.
Lesson 3. Continuous improvement – you cannot manage what you do not measure!
I have always believed in the philosophy of continuous improvement for any IT-related system. With the adoption of online learning, this conviction has become even stronger.
It may be tempting to just set up an online lesson delivery platform and wish the lecturers “good luck!”. But if you want to improve the student experience, you must look for ways to improve both the reliability and usability of the platform (Dharwan, 2019). This can be done in many ways. Some are obvious, such as asking for feedback from both lecturers and students as to what they like (and do not like) about the platform. Others, however, are more subtle.
For example, if you want your online lessons to be professional, you will want to minimize the incidence of IT equipment failures. How many times have you joined an online meeting, only to find that one or more participants cannot get their camera or microphone to work? My solution to this problem is a combination of careful system design and constant monitoring.
Careful system design involves implementing technology in such a way that it is impossible to use it incorrectly (such as ensuring that microphones and cameras are automatically always on) and minimising the possibility for human error (such as putting locking-out controls on equipment so they cannot be inadvertently mis-configured).
Constant monitoring is the other key part – having automated systems in place that check the equipment that the lecturers use to ensure that it is working correctly. Another benefit is that if an item of equipment does fail, corrective action can be taken immediately.
The key learning here – online education depends on reliable IT infrastructure, and careful design and monitoring is the only way this can be achieved.
Successful online education requires much more than a laptop and webcam. Given the extremely competitive nature of the education market, students do not have to, and will not, put up with content and delivery that do not mesh with quality online infrastructure, and therefore cannot generate strong student engagement.
However, if an institution takes a “big-picture” approach to the implementation of online learning and considers technology within the broader context of the customer experience, it can be a leader in this challenging new world of online education.
- Dhawan, S. (2019). Online Learning: A Panacea in the Time of COVID-10 Crisis. Journal of Educational Technology systems. Volume 49, Issue 1.
- Nilson, L., Goodson, L. (2017). Online Teaching at its Best: Merging Instructional Design with Teaching and Learning Research. Wiley.
Jason joined Group Colleges Australia, (GCA) in April 2003.
He managed the introduction of Interactive Whiteboard technology, the adoption of the Moodle Learning Management System and the transition to the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud platform.
He also facilitated the move to fully online learning by deploying ultra-modern classroom AV equipment and the Blackboard Collaborate online learning platform.
Jason has a Bachelor of Technology (Information and Communication Systems) from Macquarie University, and is a member of the Australian Computer Society (ACS).