How to Transition to a Successful Virtual Learning Environment

Since the emergence of COVID-19, many higher education institutions across the globe have been presented with significant challenges. In particular, institutions that had mainly relied on traditional, in-person teaching models have had to quickly pivot and adopt online learning strategies as their primary means of delivery. This not only means having to adjust to educating and engaging students in a digital environment, but also learning how to implement and use new technology to create an effective virtual classroom.

While institutions face these new barriers, the good news is that they can look to institutions that already have experience and expertise in this area. One such institution is the University College of Estate Management (UCEM), a fully online university college in the United Kingdom that has approximately 4,000 students worldwide and focuses on serving courses in the real estate and construction industries.

We recently sat down with Peter Stone—who serves as the Head of Learning Technology at UCEM and oversees the administration and implementation of learning technologies—to find out more about how the institution has created a successful virtual learning environment.

What are common challenges for educators who are new to virtual learning environments?

When faculty members first start working at UCEM, the main challenge is whether they have experience in online education. It’s fair to say that having prior experience is the exception rather than the norm.

That’s why UCEM runs a series of training courses for new faculty members that outlines how to teach effectively online and details the responsibilities of their role. New faculty members are also supported by several teams to help with their transition to online education.

What challenges did UCEM face before COVID-19? What are the challenges now? And how did you address these challenges?

Prior to COVID-19, the biggest challenge UCEM faced was building a student community. As a fully online university college, UCEM doesn’t have a campus, which means students aren’t able to meet or engage in person with fellow students or staff members.

Being able to help build these kinds of meaningful relationships is important for UCEM, as they enable effective collaboration—which is also a challenge when students and faculty can’t meet face-to-face.

Although some collaboration tools exist within Moodle, we generally look toward the wider educational technology toolset to deliver this. There is more to do in this area.

COVID-19 has been challenging—but as UCEM’s delivery is online, we’ve been less affected than traditional higher education institutions. That’s not to say there hasn’t been a need to adapt.

For instance, we successfully transitioned to a home-working model when the United Kingdom went into lockdown and have only recently opened up our Horizons office in Reading to a small number of staff. In addition to ensuring students receive a continued high level of support throughout their online studies, we also:

  • Converted our apprentice workshops from face-to-face to virtual workshops, incorporating wider online learning tools for collaborative and active learning;
  • Put in place contingencies in case there was a high level of staff illness due to COVID-19;
  • Implemented a system to issue e-Certificates to students who were due to graduate in June 2020; and
  • Implemented take-home exams that had been originally scheduled to take place in a traditional face-to-face setting in July and August.

There was also concern about whether systems’ capacity could cope with the increased demand. They were affected in the early days of lockdown, but Open LMS was quick to address and scale up resources as required.

In my opinion, UCEM has adapted well to these challenges. We’ve put several initiatives into place that have resulted in an improved user experience and which are likely to become part of our offerings going forward.

UCEM’s courses serve the real estate and construction industries—which have been heavily hit, particularly on the real estate side. As a result, the college has re-forecast its targets for the next academic year and adjusted its priorities accordingly.

Traditional higher education institutions are using online learning as a response to the challenges of COVID-19. The process of moving content online has been rapid, and there is a danger that the negative press associated with the transition to online learning could adversely affect UCEM, too.

It’s important to note, however, that a well-designed and delivered online curriculum is an effective, efficient, and stimulating way to obtain a degree, and UCEM has many years of experience and expertise in this area.

Could you elaborate on how UCEM’s online education strategy works?

We’re currently transforming our online delivery and the processes that support it. Known as “Project Transform,” this effort involves updating all of UCEM’s modules and implementing a number of processes to provide an enhanced student experience. The module redevelopment is centered around Student Outcome Led Design (SOLD) and involves designing the assessment first, and then the learning activities and resources required to support this.

Learning designers are working with tutors and several other teams to design, create, and publish these modules—which will launch in Autumn 2020 and meet the UCEM baseline standard. Modules at academic level 4 will meet the Baseline+ standard (a greater level of scaffolding and support for students), and all modules will meet this standard as part of a five-year enhancement plan.

During this period, UCEM will trial, pilot, and evaluate new activities and technologies and implement those that have the best effect on student outcomes. The overriding aim is to enhance the student experience and improve the success and retention rates. Alongside this effort, UCEM has shortened its semesters to 18 weeks and will be introducing resubmissions to enable students to progress with their studies.

UCEM has had a hosted Moodle website since October 2008. This site, which has been hosted by several different companies through the years, is now hosted by Open LMS LTG. The Open LMS team has moved with these changes and has provided great continuity and an understanding of our requirements throughout.

From your perspective, what are the most valuable features in Open LMS?

For us, the key benefits of having a hosted website via Open LMS are the level of support provided, the level of uptime, and the regularity of upgrades. Open LMS also fully tests new versions of Moodle prior to being released on production sites.

Can you tell us more about UCEM’s student body and course offerings, and how Moodle fits into that picture?

At any given time, we have approximately 4,000 students worldwide who are actively studying a program with UCEM. The vast majority are part-time students who study around their work and other commitments.

UCEM offers 10 core programs:

  • 4 MSc programs
  • 1 MBA program
  • 5 BSc (Hons) programs

The institution also offers Degree Apprenticeship and Master’s Apprenticeship programs that share the modules from the relevant core program. They have a different support model in place to provide apprentices with the support required. The UCEM programs are made up of modules (Moodle courses) and approximately 120 are delivered across two semesters each year.

The percentage of students that complete a program will vary depending on the specific program and its duration. However, in general terms, a completion rate of about 60% for full award is achieved, with approximately 5–10% achieving a lesser award.

In your opinion, what will be the “new normal” in education?

Ultimately, the new normal in education will need to mimic the new normal in life. Significant adjustments may be required for several years—especially as face-to-face contact may never be the same. From an educational perspective, limiting or carefully controlling these interactions will be key.

One way of achieving this new normal in education is to increase online interactions. Education can and does effectively take place online, and UCEM is an example of this. However, I expect that many institutions and higher education institutions will gradually revert back to existing models, albeit with secure safety procedures in place.

A small number of institutions will expand their offerings to include online delivery, which is a perfectly viable option. But for many institutions, the change in direction, the investment of time and resources, and the negative press associated with rushed online experiences may be too great a barrier.

What advice would you share to peer institutions that are planning to implement online education?

I’d say that institutions need to fully consider and resource what they are going to implement. Don’t underestimate the resource required to develop high-quality online education. Also, don’t just put existing resources online—there is a need to think creatively about what you are trying to achieve and how that is best delivered online.

What advice would you give about evolving a virtual learning environment?

The evolution of a virtual learning environment is really determined by the needs of the institution and, more importantly, the students studying. UCEM actively uses feedback from students to improve the offer. It is important to consider that a VLE doesn’t necessarily provide all that is required for the student journey and integrations with other systems are essential. The VLE is essentially one cog in a wider ecosystem of technologies and it is important that the right tool is selected for the required need.

Peter Stone, Head of Learning Technology at UCEM

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