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Paying close attention to the student experience is as important for online learning as it is for campus-based courses, according to Julie Stone, Director of the University of Derby Online Learning (UDOL).
The latest figures on course completion and student achievement at UDOL are a testament to that outlook, she says.
Course completion rates have reached a record 96 per cent this year, and nearly two thirds of UDOL distance learning degree students now graduate with good honours of a First or 2:1. The institution has even bucked the trend for low completion rates on free MOOCs – massive open online courses. While average retention rates for MOOCs between five and eight per cent, UDOL’s most popular MOOC - Bridging the Dementia Divide – boasts a rate of 35 per cent, while its DigitalMe: Managing Your Digital Self – has already reached 16 per cent.
The drive to give students the same good experience of UK higher education as those on the Derby Campus has had a “massive” impact on staying on rates, says Julie Stone. “My passion is around making sure that online students are not just bolted onto the back of the campus experience. We have put a lot of effort into finding different ways of engaging with them and building online student communities,” she says.
Derby’s students serving in the military abroad, on an oil rig in the North Sea, or in a small African village, can’t just pop into the student union bar - but they can sign on to UDOL’s online café to take a break and meet up with friends, for example, or build communities on Facebook. “Each student has a personal tutor alongside their module tutors and we have online learning advisors dotted around to guide them. We monitor their progress and remind them of course work deadlines but we are flexible when things happen in their lives that disrupt their studies,” she adds.
UDOL’s director has a personal commitment to making life as smooth as possible for distance learners. She herself caught up with her education through part-time courses after leaving school at 17 to get a job. She studied for her A-levels and eventually reached the pinnacle of an MBA as a part-time student.
The global nature of distance learning excites her. “The University of Derby used to have a radius of about 40 miles to attract part-time students. Advances in communication technology means location is no barrier, it is truly global. We have more than 3,000 students from 100 countries studying with UDOL,” she says. “They are building global networks and sharing their different perspectives and experience in very creative ways through our virtual learning environment and through social media.”
When they were first introduced, MOOCs were seen as a way of widening access to higher education, but feared as a threat to fee-charging courses. In practice, they are proving to be a way of drawing people in to other courses. Having had a taste of higher education, more than 200 MOOC students have gone on to enrol on UDOL’s more traditional distance learning courses.
MOOCs spread the brand globally so they must be of a high standard, she says. Derby was the UK’s first university to be awarded the OpenupEd quality label, the only quality assurance benchmark for MOOCs that was developed in Europe.
“What is fascinating about MOOCs is their power to bring people together and raise awareness. Our dementia MOOC has attracted more than 5,000 learners from across the world and become a significant meeting ground for people to engage in dialogue – people living with the condition, family, carers, health workers, doctors and social workers. What we have found most humbling are the comments from those who say they were feeling suicidal and, through the MOOC, found people who understood what they were going through,” she adds.
The city of Derby was a birthplace of the industrial revolution and following in that tradition it is now a world renowned centre for advanced engineering, especially in the transport field where it is home to Rolls Royce and Toyota. The University works closely with industry in order to ensure students get real world learning and now it has been awarded funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to trial innovative uses of new learning technologies in two of its advanced engineering postgraduate courses.
UDOL’s Director has a long history with the University of Derby, joining in 1984 as a faculty Business Manager. She went away for a while when her husband was relocated and worked as the Head of Quality Assurance at what is now Gloucestershire University, helping the Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education attain degree awarding powers which subsequently led to university status.
It wasn’t long before she moved back to Derby, working in different roles including Deputy Registrar, Projects Officer to the Executive Office and Corporate Business Manager before becoming the Director of UDOL in 2012. She predicts an increasing use of online courses by employers to improve the skills of their employees, particularly in digital technology.
Employers responding to the latest survey by CIPD, the professional body for human resources, predicted an increased use of technology in staff training. Three-fifths expected a growth in their use of e-learning courses and over a third thought they would soon be making more use of virtual classrooms and webinars.
Derby has embraced the Government’s new advanced apprenticeships and UDOL is working closely with employers on providing flexible academic support for the new work-based qualifications.
Online learning has a bright future and has yet to reach its full potential, she says. Advances in the use of virtual reality and innovative technology to extend cyber space to isolated areas she sees as two growth areas.
UDOL has the potential to become a global market leader and an even more significant business operation for the university, she says: “But I won’t be losing sight of my passion for ensuring that it never becomes a deficit model for students who engage in different ways with the university. They deserve the same positive experience as those who are here with us on campus.”
"What is fascinating about MOOCs is their power to bring people together and raise awareness."
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