Gemma Stafford is an education technology leader with a vision. As a senior learning designer at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) in England, she leads a team of learning designers working on accelerating NTU’s digital learning transformation. Her mission is to reimagine learning, teaching, assessment and the student experience to enable a hyperflexible delivery model. She also works in partnership with the VLE manager to shape NTU’s virtual learning environment (VLE) ecosystem using D2L Brightspace.
In an interview during D2L Fusion 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts, Gemma shared a wealth of insights about online and remote learning and her concern over how the two are often conflated. In her view, online learning provides more flexibility and value for money than remote learning, even though it requires more effort up front—an opinion she supported with insights gleaned from NTU’s experience. Here’s a snapshot of that interview, delivered in Gemma’s own words:
Offering Flexibility in Online Learning
I currently lead NTU’s Flex Team, a talented group of 10 learning designers. They work along three streams to create high-quality online and blended learning. First, they work with our academic colleagues to develop their capacity to deliver fully online and blended learning. Second, they develop fully online content identified in strategic plans from each academic school. Third, they ensure that flexibility is incorporated into course design. Many NTU students who come to university via a non-traditional route have work or family obligations that they must flex their studies around. They find online and blended learning helpful to flex their mode of study.
Providing Value for Money
One of the challenges of online learning is giving the flexibility to balance work, care and obligations while still demonstrating that students are getting value for money. Students, in my experience, believe they aren’t getting their money’s worth by shifting to online learning, despite the bigger investment, as they conflate online learning with the remote learning they experienced during the pandemic. That is a real barrier and professional challenge for educators at NTU.
Remote learning is like a lifeboat in an emergency, whereas fully online learning is like a yacht crafted to meet individual needs. There is so much more to online learning. It’s not just the academic who delivers the material from the front of the classroom. There is a learning designer working to create and design materials. A lot of time and thought goes into creating activities that are pedagogically sound and fit for purpose. In an online environment, the level of instruction you need to provide is far greater than what is typically given in a classroom. A skill and knowledge gap develops that they don’t always understand. We’re experts in online learning, and the challenge of helping learners or academics bridge that gap is what my team does the best.
Remote learning is like a lifeboat in an emergency, whereas fully online learning is like a yacht crafted to meet individual needs.
We created a set of design principles in our quality handbook at NTU. It aligns with the tools used in our VLE to help academics deliver high-quality online learning. To bridge that gap, we designed a templated learning room that complies with the Quality Matters Course Design Rubric. We’ve a set of templates for content to instruct on what scaffolding they should provide—introduction, learning outcome, activities and resources. These are included in each unit to help academics in creating a learning journey for students. As an outcome, templates provide essential teaching and learning information like “Who teaches my course? How do I get to contact them?” and so on—ensuring consistency across all modules. It goes some way to providing a quality baseline that demonstrates a commitment to the student experience.
Collaborating With Students
We create a prototype for all our online developments and test them with students—this is always positively received. Students enjoy the activities we create and are often surprised by the possibilities of online learning. They see the value of having those online learning options and collaboration in the development process. Academic perception is also shifting and seeing online learning in an increasingly positive light. Involvement in these projects and increasing academic capacity and understanding of online learning will mean that colleagues and students will be better prepared should we ever face an emergency again.
Envisioning an Educator’s Dream
Besides improving student learning, we also strive to ensure that students have the knowledge and skills to succeed in the workplace and society. We want our academics to believe in online learning and incorporate flexibility into their programs of study. Our students will likely learn online most of what they need to know after university. We must prepare them to learn independently and manage their time to do it alongside their careers and life.
We can see how media and skewed media representations affect our lives globally. Our team feels strongly about ensuring students have online learning experiences that enable them to make informed decisions and critically review information in a screen-mediated society.
We want our academics to believe in online learning and incorporate flexibility into their programs of study.
Emphasizing Effective Online Learning
Brightspace has enhanced our teaching and learning experience, and we have been querying the API to make custom innovations. We placed a discussion forum at the bottom of the web template. Now, we can facilitate discussions at the end of the content, making it more social. At NTU, we want our academics to take a leap of faith and commit to online learning. We encourage academics to work with learning designers, communicate with students and trust in the results of testing that we will create a high-quality online learning experience that prepares students for careers and lives that will need significant online activity.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jitha James is an International Content Marketing Specialist at D2L. She holds two Master of Arts degrees in English Language & Literature and in Communication from the University of Madras, India. Additionally, she holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Digital Marketing from MICA, India. She has worked in higher education, Journalism, and EdTech.
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