Wouldn’t it be great if you could work in your chosen profession whilst working towards a degree and not have to pay a penny toward tuition fees? Well, soon many will be able to do just that. In April 2017, the UK Government introduced the ‘Apprenticeship Levy’ in effort to encourage more people to take on an apprenticeship. The idea is that this will improve employee skill across a range of sectors whilst retaining them in the workplace environment.

All UK employers that have a total employee pay bill above £3m a year will pay the levy, which has been set at a rate of 0.5% of the employers pay bill. Employer’s eligible include the public and private sector, charities and education providers. Employers will get a £15,000 fixed annual allowance to offset against the levy payment, so for example, an Employer with a £3m pay bill would have a levy bill of £15,000. Therefore the allowance is offset against this so their levy payment would be £0.00. Employers will have the freedom to spend their money on apprenticeship training to meet their needs as they see fit, however funds will expire after 24 months so there is incentive for employers to use their levy fund.

For our University, and many other Higher Education institutions across the country,  we are going to need to work hard to develop and provide suitable courses for these new students. The most attractive courses will be those that can allow the student to obtain their degree without having to leave their workplace to attend lectures or study days, which would greatly benefit their employer. For this reason, the TEL team have been reading various literature to help piece together the best practices for creating distance learning courses that are taught entirely online.

The University of York provides a useful checklist as to how best to create and develop online distance courses and the key issues to consider. The main points of the checklist are as follows:

Planning & Team Formation

Have you:

  • Outlined a project plan and sought input from relevant advisory services?
  • Profiled your prospective students e.g. demographics, technical competence, time zones, prior experience of online learning?
  • Formed a project team and, where relevant, identified and signed up training required?
  • Resolved how any remote tutors will be trained?
  • Agreed roles within the project team i.e. who is responsible for site and content development, and who will be online at what frequencies to communicate with students and facilitate online activities?

Course design & development

Have you:

  • Used a structured design approach e.g. story-boarding to plan the course structure and learning design?
  • Evaluated online tools and identified the appropriate means to support design?
  • Devised active learning activities e.g. problem solving, case reports, journal writing, role playing and discussions to engage students?
  • Identified materials and resources to be written or adapted, as well as existing electronic resources (inc. copyright)?
  • Agreed a content development plan including responsibilities, milestones, and a deadline allowing for review prior to delivery?
  • Developed a style for format of materials e.g. template, optimised for on-screen reading with graphics etc.?
  • Set up a logical structure for online materials with clear headings that use student-friendly terminology?
  • Divided learning materials into manageable chunks or sections, in sequence, and clearly stated the learning outcomes for each?
  • Highlighted any plug-ins, readers or specialist software that are required for accessing online files that students will need to engage with and included links to download them?
  • Set up clear communication channels e.g. online discussion activities?
  • Balanced group and individual activities so students can still work at their chosen pace?
  • Provided self-assessments or other opportunities for students to consolidate after each section and check/self-diagnose their progress?
  • Identified a method for the submission of assignments and established how students will receive feedback e.g. by personal email
  • Set aside time to properly test your module as a student?

Student support

Have you:

  • Developed a student induction programme including instructions (perhaps sent by email) that enable students to master such tasks as online logging in, navigating and using key online tools e.g. blog, wiki?
  • Provided a prominent welcome and a “big picture” overview of the module?
  • Compiled introductory guidelines for students setting out:
    • Module outline?
    • Module timetable?
    • Staff contacts and expected turnaround times for responses?
    • Technical requirements for computers?
    • First points of contact for academic and technical help?
    • Reading lists inc. links to online library resources and student services?
  • Included a “Week 0” for addressing any access issues and for running online icebreaker activities to build confidence as well as begin to help generate a sense of student “community” (that fellow learners are also engaged in the process)?
  • Included guidance on how to approach studying online and also on being an independent learner? Such guidance might include online etiquette guidelines (language, “wiki wars”, copyright, file sizes etc.) and suggested frequency for logging in?
  • Integrated generic support materials where relevant e.g. information skills, plagiarism awareness tutorials, tool use hints?
  • Encouraged peer support groups or set up peer review activities within the module to encourage a supportive community?

Evaluation

Have you:

  • Established how you will gather feedback on the module? Such as:
    • Using entry and exit surveys to elicit students’ expectations and concerns about learning online and then follow-up questioning their actual experience in the module?
    • As an alternative, using an informal mid-module survey asking students what is helping their learning and what is most challenging for them, then using a formal evaluation at the end?

In terms of the best practices for teaching an online course, the information we found within ‘Best Practices in Online Teaching Strategies’ by the Hanover Research Council proved interesting. The HRC have summarised key practices in effective online teaching taken from VOCAL (Visible, Organized, Compassionate, Analytical, and Leader), which are the characteristics deemed most effective in online learning and teaching by John R. Savery. The key points are identified as below:

Visible

The online classroom differs from the traditional classroom in that text largely replaces in-person, face-to-face, verbal communication. This different dynamic makes it easier for students to feel as if the instructor is not participating in learning, thus making it more likely that students take a passive role as well. A lack of visibility may lead to students‘ critical attitudes of the instructor‘s effectiveness and lower levels of effective learning.

Visibility can be demonstrated through public and private communication channels, such as:

  • A section of the course website with personal and professional information about the instructor.
  • Timely return of assignments and feedback.
  • Regular course website updates and postings, and well as regular updates to a shared assignment calendar.
  • Mass and personal email communications with all students.

Organized

Because online learners generally choose to take an online course because they assume it will provide more flexibility for their busy schedules, they also need to know what is expected of them so that they can organize their time to meet course requirements. This increased time management responsibility of the learner also means that there is an increased organization responsibility on the instructor. In order to meet the needs of students, it is suggested that online instructors:

  • Require students to take an online self-assessment and report what they think are the characteristics of a successful online student.
  • Prepare syllabus and assignment due dates carefully and well in advance so that students know what to expect and when.
  • Prepare a documents of ―Do‘s and Dont’s for the course, including the rules of web etiquette, posting comments in discussion forums, and communicating concerns to the instructor.
  • Anticipate the need for a non-instructional venue for online discussions.
  • Use different formats for online resources and label each clearly so that students can select a format that is most useful to them (i.e. pdf, html, doc, ppt).
  • Fully use the capabilities of the available educational technology to enhance student learning.

Compassionate

Online environments can be surprisingly intimate, especially since email provides a combination of privacy and distance that does not exist in traditional classrooms. This intimacy increases the need for instructors to be compassionate of students‘ feelings and needs. This can be accomplished through:

  • Permission for students to communicate directly with the instructor.
  • Discussion forums in which students introduce themselves and provide personal information, or use ice-breaker techniques to get students to share personal information with each other.
  • Reminding, if necessary, student of the class expectations of conduct, participation, and the instructor‘s response to unanticipated problems.

Analytical

Instructors need to manage the online learning assignment to ensure that students are completing assignments and achieving learning outcomes. This includes the timely return of assignments as well as the analysis of student data. While many course management systems provide tools for assessment and analysis, it is the instructor‘s responsibility to determine if the assessment if appropriate to the subject. Suggested strategies include:

  • The use of smaller and more frequent assignments throughout the course to reduce test anxiety and provide learners with opportunities to process course concepts and content.
  • The use of satellite offices, if possible, to administer face-to-face exams.
  • Specify the format and file naming conventions for assignments submitted online to help easily organize and alphabetize assignments.
  • Provide opportunities for students to provide feedback on the course.
  • Provide clear expectations and guidelines for assessing participation.

Leader-by-Example

The online instructor sets the tone for student performance through teacher-student interactions. Consequently, instructors should attempt to model best practice strategies to assist student learning. Ways in which instructors can model good online learning and behavior

include:

  • Introductions in which the instructors shares personal information with students both formally and informally.
  • Model responsibility by returning assignments within the communicated established time period.
  • Model the right way students should communicate online.
  • Use public and private communication to ensure visibility.
  • Plan for and implement an activity at the end of the course that brings closure to the class, reinforces what was learning, and acknowledges the contributions of students.

What next?

There is a lot of information out there and we now need to work on creating our own Framework, so we as a University can be prepared for the development of these courses. Having this Framework in place will not just benefit those taking part in a degree apprenticeship, but also Home, EU and International students who are taking part in distance learning courses. Our aim is to give these new students the best experience possible, regardless of where they are based.

References:

Distance Learning Development Checklist, Elearning Development Team, University of York, 2011

Hanover Research Council, Best Practices in Online Teaching Strategies, 2009, Pg 8-10

John R. Savery. ―Be VOCAL: Characteristics of Success Online Instructors.‖ Journal of Interactive Online Learning. 4:2,Fall 2005. Pg. 141.