In April 2020, UBSS moved from face-to-face to online lesson delivery. As the IT Manager, I realised that the transition would not only be challenging but would also be a learning experience. In an earlier article, I listed three lessons I learned from the experience: Do not change things too quickly; focus on the needs of your customers; and practice continuous improvement (Whitfield 2020). In this article I add three more such lessons: Online learning is not cheap; deliver lectures from campus rather than the lecturer’s home; and provide ongoing training for both staff and students.
Lesson 1: Quality online learning is not cheap
Before the COVID pandemic, UBSS was very successful in its delivery of face-to-face learning. This was due partly to the large capital investments it had been made over many years to provide lecturers and students with technology that was up-to-date and supported this mode of delivery. However, when UBSS made the move to online learning, it became apparent very quickly that the existing infrastructure (both software and hardware) could not provide online education that was comparable in quality to that achieved in a face-to-face environment.
Due to the speed at which UBSS was required to make the transition, its initial step was to adapt existing technology as best it could to the new learning mode. The adaptations were an improvement, but Management quickly realised that much better classroom equipment and software platforms were needed if excellent student outcomes were to be achieved. Simple items such as cameras and microphones are not required for face-to-face classes but become critical for online delivery (O’Loughlin, 2020). Although the PCs at UBSS already had these features built-in, their quality and flexibility were clearly unsatisfactory. Replacing them with higher quality versions was undertaken, but at considerable cost. However, subsequent student feedback indicated that the expenditures were justified.
The software also required attention. The existing video conferencing platform could have been used for online delivery (and initially it was), but it soon became apparent that it did not possess enough of the features needed for effective student engagement. Thus, more capital was invested in a totally new software platform for online delivery. Student feedback and retention rates indicated, again, that this expenditure paid off.
The key issue here: An institution that attempts to deliver online learning without spending money on supporting technology will fail, and its customers will vote with their feet.
Lesson 2: Working from home is not always the best solution
I have heard it touted many times that a side benefit of online lesson delivery is allowing lecturers to deliver their lessons from any location including their own home. Whilst working from home is very convenient for lecturers, UBSS learned very early on that it had two profoundly negative effects. First, consistency of delivery was lost. Each lecturer had a different camera, a different microphone, different lighting and, crucially, a different internet connection. Secondly, quality was reduced. For online learning, a reliable internet connection is the most crucial component of technology, as it directly affects the student experience. Although penetration of the NBN has improved the situation in recent years, we found that several lecturers had internet connectivity that was simply not fast or reliable enough.
When poor variable connectivity is combined with differences in the quality of equipment being used, a student can have an excellent online experience in one class but a very poor experience in the next. Importantly, this can occur when the lecturers in both classes are well-liked and personally engaging. Even a great lecturer can easily be let down by a camera that does not show their face clearly, a microphone that does not pick up their voice accurately, and an internet connection that continually drops out.
Another issue that was discovered early on is that when lecturers deliver their lessons from home, it can be very difficult and time consuming for them to get technical support when things go wrong. The shift from face-to-face to online lesson delivery has placed far more reliance on technology, and if the latter fails, there is no fall-back position. With face-to-face delivery, the lecturer always has the option of standing in front of the class and chatting away if they cannot get their data projector or PC to work. They cannot do this when they are teaching online from their home and the internet connection fails.
Realising that all of this could adversely affect the student experience, UBSS Management decided very early on that all UBSS lecturers would deliver their online lessons from their normal UBSS classrooms. These are set up with the same high-quality equipment, ensuring a consistently high level of online delivery. Having the lecturers onsite also allows for technical support to be always available, enabling issues to be resolved quickly.
The key issue here: working from home is convenient for the lecturers, but there is a price to be paid. That price is an inconsistent and often poor student experience.
Lesson 3. Training, training, and more training
The transition to online learning during the COVID pandemic could not have been foreseen by anyone, including our lecturers. They had been happily delivering lectures to a live audience for years, when suddenly, they were told: “We’re moving online. You have one week to prepare.”
This was a huge shock to the lecturers, none of whom had originally “signed up” for online delivery. They were forced to adapt – and more importantly, they were forced to use technology in ways they had never used it before.
From my perspective, one of the key challenges during the transition was ensuring that staff “at the coal face” – i.e., the lecturers – were adequately trained in the use of online technology. Not only that, but they also needed to be comfortable with the technology, so they could be relaxed during their classes and engaging with their online audience.
Thorough training is essential, and not just for the lecturers. Providing “how to” guides for students is also crucial, as well as demonstrating any new technology to the management, administration and marketing departments. Keeping everyone “in the loop”, builds confidence within the entire organisation.
As the person responsible for providing the training, I also learned that the nature of the training must match the aptitude level of each lecturer (McClure, 2018). Each lecturer has a different level of familiarity with the technology being used, and it is therefore necessary to give more time to those lecturers who appear to be uncomfortable with using it.
Periodic re-training was also found to be very useful. After UBSS had been delivering lessons online for several months, I was able to see both what lecturers were doing right and where they could improve in their use of technology. I was able to incorporate my findings into future training sessions with the ultimate goal of improving the student experience.
The key issue: training staff in the use of new technology is as important as the technology itself. Perhaps more important. After all, the technology is useless if the end users cannot take advantage of it.
I knew that the move to online learning would not be easy, inexpensive, or quick. I was proved right on all three points. However, I was surprised at just how difficult, how expensive and how long the transition would be.
If the goal of the educational institution is to deliver online learning in a manner that is professional and sets the institution apart from its competitors, it must be prepared to spend money, to overcome many difficult technical issues and, most importantly, to allow sufficient time for the changes to be implemented. Transitions of this nature cannot be rushed.
- McClure, K. (2018). Catering to individual differences. Language magazine.
- O’Loughlin, D. (2020). Selecting teaching resources that meet student needs: A guide. https://www.acer.org/au/discover/article/selecting-teaching-resources-that-meet-student-needs-a-guide.
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).