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Michael Stewart, Interactive Design Institute, UK

Though based in the UK, IDI provides design degrees to students around the world online. Director Michael Stewart tells The PIE how distance learners require more support, why putting a text on a website doesn’t create an online learning environment and how he thinks the lecture hall will ultimately be obsolete.

The PIE: All of your courses are online so how do you create that positive student experience?

Our international student intake accounts for 47% of our overall admissions for 2015

MS: We operate on the principal that in order to facilitate a positive, personal experience for students studying at a distance, they should have access to more support, not less.

Individual student support begins during the online admissions process when applicants are allocated a dedicated admissions advisor, whose role is to support them through the entire admissions process. Depending on the level of support required, this interaction can span over days or months in the build up to their enrolment.

All of our tutors work at a distance, and are our student’s first point of contact for any academic matters relating to the module or modules they are studying. Individual tutor feedback and support is unlimited, and wherever possible tutors respond to students within 24 hours, Monday to Friday.

“Accessing the learning materials in manageable chunks means that students can combine their employment and personal circumstances with education”

Once our students begin their studies we focus heavily on student engagement; we ensure that online course materials are written in a way that is designed to engage students with their learning and encourage them to have regular, ongoing communication with their tutors and peers.

Course materials are carefully planned and structured and presented in “manageable chunks”. Currently, 90% of our students are studying on part-time basis, often balancing their studies with jobs and other commitments. IDI’s asynchronous delivery method allows our students to choose when and where they want to study, be that from home or while on the move via mobile devices. Accessing the learning materials in manageable chunks means that students can combine their employment and personal circumstances with a meaningful education that suits their particular situation.

The PIE: How does the online format enhance student learning?

MS: Advances in technology over the last 10 years that we’ve been in operation have enabled us to create a logical, intuitive, user friendly system of delivering information and facilitating communication that is easy to access.

Everything the student needs in relation to their studies is at hand. An IDI student is able to share numerous images of their work and save those images to the relevant place at the click of a mouse. Our students can view all of the interaction they’ve had with their tutors throughout every module. They can communicate with their peers in forums at any time, and they have a dedicated support team looking after all of their non-academic needs throughout. None of this would be possible without the online format.

A key strength of IDI is the personalised support we have put in place to ensure our students have the best chance of success. To date 63% of our graduates have achieved a degree classification of 2.1 or above.

“For many students, the prospect of studying online can be daunting”

The PIE: What challenges does the online format present?

MS: For many students, the prospect of studying online can be daunting. We do recognise that this method of study has the potential to present barriers to success. For this reason, every new IDI student is given access to an induction programme in IDI-Study for a week before their studies begin where they undertake a series of activities designed to ensure familiarity with the functionality of IDI-Study.

Student support advisors also aim to speak to every new student within their first few weeks of study to discuss their general progress and level of satisfaction with their experience of IDI and their course to date. We believe that this early intervention make students aware of the level and types of support that can be provided by our advisors, and this can help identify and resolve any issues affecting students at an early stage before they become problematic.

The PIE: How many international students do you teach? How do you recruit them?

MS: Our international student intake accounts for 47% of our overall admissions for 2015. The majority of our international students are mainly recruited through our digital marketing activities and through affiliate websites. We also work with a small number of international student recruitment agents and we plan to expand this area of our marketing strategy.

“We must not fall into the trap of believing that simply because a technology exists, it must be applied”

The PIE: What’s your funding model? Do international students pay more than UK students?

MS: Currently our students self-fund. The total fee for a three year BA programme is £12,750 (£4,250 per level) and the total fee for an MA is £6,000. We charge the same level of fee for UK, EU and international students. We do offer some discounts, including a popular discount for employers and self-employed students. When compared to the cost of studying on an attendance basis in the UK our fees are highly competitive and we offer the flexibility of full-time, part-time and in some cases, accelerated study patterns, which is attractive to international students.

The PIE: Do you think there’s a tendency to have technology for technology’s sake in classrooms without any real understanding of how it can improve learning? 

MS: Absolutely; those of us who are involved in online education must not fall into the trap of believing that simply because a technology exists, it must be applied.

Any technological advance will only have positive value if it is employed as an integral part of a pedagogy that is subject to ongoing review and revision. Additionally, the more likely it is that a technological advance will have a profound impact on the pedagogy it supports or facilitates, the greater the need for a radical revision of the pedagogy that aims to integrate it; tinkering around the edges or reordering a few of the parts to incorporate the most attractive technological elements is only ever going to be a short term fix.

However, even if we address all of these issues and then incorporate them within an existing educational model, this does not necessarily constitute “online provision”. For example, uploading an unsupported stack of text based materials to a website because we have created it and we can populate it with learning materials is not “online education”.

“The most effective online model provides the learner with access to high levels of educational and pastoral support throughout the entire process”

Equally, adopting a high specification, media-rich, fully immersive platform to deliver basic course materials is not necessarily the most effective methodology either. Attracting students by offering state of the art technology at the expense of a fit for purpose pedagogy and robust student support facility does a great disservice to all concerned; the learner may engage initially but this engagement will be superficial and retention rates will ultimately be poor.

In my experience, the most effective online model for education is that which provides the learner with access to high levels of educational and pastoral support throughout the entire process; from enrolment through induction to completion and graduation.

The PIE: How do you see online learning evolving over the next decade?

MS: I think that the majority of those involved in teaching & learning have now recognised that education does not necessarily mean congregation.

However, although I suspect the classroom and lecture theatre as we know them are about to be consigned to the dustbin of educational history, these purpose defined spaces they will live on in other forms.

In the short term, such spaces will be preserved digitally. Online providers have adopted the interactive 3D, simulated environment and given our hankering after traditional forms and formats, today’s student already expects to meet peers and professors routinely in a version of cyberspace. But this will transition.

“Online education will move towards customised learning experiences delivered to the student’s device of choice – probably wearable technology”

As the communal classroom/lecture theatre model becomes less familiar and ultimately obsolete, so too will the traditional semester/term structure for course delivery. The role of the teacher/professor/trainer will become less rigidly defined and begin to focus more on the sharing of skills, knowledge and expertise, regardless of formal teaching qualifications. These new educators will be employed not by single, physical institutions but by global online providers who aim to source the skills and knowledge of those who are leaders in their field, no matter where they are located geographically.

The PIE: Talking about delivery specifically, what will be technology’s impact?

MS: Gamification is already influencing providers and online education will move towards customised, individual learning experiences which are delivered to the student’s device of choice – probably wearable technology – as compact, 30 minute or hour long sessions with increased reliance on visual and experiential as opposed to text based content. However, given the rate at which digital technologies are evolving and being applied to the provision of education – and more importantly being embraced by consumers of education – it is impossible to predict the medium term future with any accuracy. The next ten years will prove to be the second critical phase in the evolution of online provision.

The PIE: What’s in the plan for future developments at IDI?

MS: This is an exciting time for IDI. We feel that we have invested our time and energy over the last 10 years in proving our concept, developing our supported online learning pedagogy and refining our technologies; – in addition to enhancing our portfolio of courses. We are confident that this is the time to expand into other areas, to engage with a small number of additional partners and expand our provision into other subject areas. We are currently exploring opportunities within the disciplines of business, health care, teacher training and law among others.

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