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Overcoming Barriers to Digital Learning

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The scale of digital learning challenges that the academic sector is facing, means the need to do things differently is greater than ever. Rethinking and redesigning online learning provides ways to overcome these complex challenges to foster meaningful interaction and deliver quality content to learners. 

As we enter the third year of a pandemic-affected world, virtual teaching is here to stay. While the initial transition has at times been less than elegant, digital learning is gaining a new level of respect from course leaders, and learners are more willing than ever to engage with online programmes. 

Aided by two years of hindsight and learning, there are new ways to overcome the barriers that still exist, enabling educators to take control of digital learning challenges, engage with learners, and enable interactive collaboration. 

The World Economic Forum notes that online learning platform Coursera registered 20 million new students in 2021. This is comparable to the total growth of the three years pre-pandemic. While the upward trend began before the pandemic, it has gained significant momentum since. It is clear technology will continue to disrupt instructional learning, but this needn’t create an uncertain future for course leaders and students. Based on Hubble Studios’ considerable experience in the education sector, there are systems, design, and content solutions that allow institutions to build innovation and engagement into remote learning environments that ensure learning outcomes are met. 

Building community and care into digital learning 

A pressing problem faced by instructors and students in the pivot to online learning has been creating not just a learning experience, but an online university experience. While technology can solve some of the challenges of transitioning to digital learning, it is not enough to bridge the gap between online learning and the physical and emotional experience of life on campus. 

University World News reports that a Ministry of Education survey in Japan has found that 701 students out of a total of 11,852 dropped out of universities and colleges in that country between April and August 2021, twice the number in 2020. The top three reasons are financial constraints, inability to adapt to online student life, and loss of interest in studying. Clearly, more can be done to build community and engagement into remote learning environments. 

Chief Academic Officer at Hubble Studios, Chelsey Pienaar, says, “The digital learning challenges faced by institutions demand more from us than simply moving whole academic programmes online. Missing out on the fluid, social interactions that happen on campus has a direct bearing on student enrolment and dropout rates. Fortunately, there is a wealth of knowledge and mechanisms available to educators to help them upskill and adapt to the online learning environment.” 

Start by asking what it means to create a student community. Are there aspects of the university experience that can be offered beyond the classroom? This can take the form of sign-ups that allow students to form their own study groups, or other types of social events from open discussion forums to competitions and quiz nights. It’s important that each concept meets the reality of where students are at, instead of where they should be, or facilitate in closing the gap between the two. 

Chelsey says, “Two important aspects of designing for online learning is creating recognisable elements that foster a sense of belonging among students. This could include incorporating an institution’s brand into the customised platform while incorporating elements into lesson planning through branded templates, for example, that look familiar and feel comfortable for students. 

“Another aspect is the potential of digital learning platforms to make course leaders available to students. A student now has online mechanisms like discussion forums that give them ready opportunities to connect with course leaders – an effective way to build rapport and a stronger sense of community. Yes, there are still many barriers to digital learning, but we’re also finding innovative ways to overcome these.” 

Firing up student engagement

While technology is an enabler of remote education environments, at its heart online learning is a human endeavour. When we keep the importance of engagement at the centre of instructional design and technology, we create opportunities for connecting person-to-person and sharing and learning in ways that may not have been available in the past. With the right design and application of tools and techniques, online teaching and learning allows institutions to deliver engaging experiences to students that give them the best chance at meaningful learning. This, in turn, has a direct bearing on grades and pass rates that reflect on both the educator and the institution. 

A wide range of digital tools gives course leaders additional ways to connect with students and greater time flexibility in which to do this. Thoughtfully designed digital learning tools negate many of the time and space constraints of the classroom. Now, opportunities for sustained guidance and support present themselves in the almost limitless space where digital technologies and practices, designers, and instructional learning meet.     

Navigating the logistics of blended learning 

Blended learning can be immensely effective if the implementation thereof is well thought out. What might have been seen as a barrier to learning in the initial frantic months of online transition, in fact presents possibilities for greater flexibility and increased engagement as students and instructors are no longer bound by time zones or geographical locations.  

Robyn Mitchell, a Learning Designer at Hubble Studios, says, “Learning online is more accessible than ever before, more affordable for students who may not have been able to finance a tertiary education in the past, and the flexibility of digital learning offers new opportunities for those who need to adopt flexible learning schedules. Programmes and courses can reach a much wider audience if careful consideration of faculty and learners’ schedules are taken into account. This can be done by prompting self-sign-ups to tutorial slots as opposed to allocations, for example, and being intentional about the timing of live sessions to cater for learners in different geographical locations.”  

“Course elements and lesson planning can be designed and facilitated with different learners in mind and tailored to their needs. A customised platform offers almost limitless possibilities when it comes to navigating the logistics of blended learning and gives institutions the tools and space in which to explore their full potential to deliver meaningful online learning to students which suits their particular goals and lifestyles.” 

Ensuring that learning outcomes are met

Utilising online platforms for instructional learning opens a wide variety of ways in which faculty can present information and assess learning. 

Robyn says, “Our job as learning designers is to assist faculty in being creative with the mechanisms and technology that online learning platforms provide to best present information and find alternative ways to assess learning to ensure outcomes are met. For example, a physiotherapy student can now submit for review, a video of themselves treating a (consenting) patient, which a lecturer can watch, make notes and return an evaluation. 

“Everything we deliver is carefully selected because it offers value to the student and their learning experience. Every course blueprint includes analysing the learning outcomes for an entire course then breaking these down into learning outcomes for each module of the course. These learning outcomes are mapped to Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, scaffolded from lower- to higher-order skills. They’re carefully written using verbs so students know what they need to do and the expectations of them are clear. 

“Learners start with lower-order skills – being able to understand the basic concept, then over time, as the course progresses, they increasingly practice and apply higher-order skills. We always map outcomes for the course then select the content types that will best enable students to achieve those outcomes.” 

Thriving in a complex digital learning space 

If you’ve experienced moments of crisis in the pivot to online learning, you are not alone. Faculty, staff, and students continue to struggle with the sudden shift to a new way of delivering and receiving education, but there is more than a glimmer of hope in the form of education technology and effective digital learning design. 

While feeling the sometimes unwelcome effects of unprecedented change on such a large scale, it would be unfortunate if we failed to seize the opportunity to fully embrace the future of learning. We have the technology and tools to apply common-sense action that will see higher education move forward with fresh ideas and online learning structures that are flexible, responsive, and highly effective for students and faculty alike. 

Online learning continues to evolve in a complex environment, but our academic, technology, and support teams at Hubble Studios can help you navigate through the complexity to create solutions that will allow your institution to become a pioneer in digital learning. 

Are you able to overcome the digital learning challenges that your institution faces? Can you offer a digital learning experience that equips your faculty and students for the future and will allow you to effectively weather the next crisis? Hubble Studios can help you answer “yes” to these questions. Contact us to discuss how together we can rethink and redesign your online learning environment to thrive into the future. 

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