Articles Digital Learning

Online Education beyond a crisis

Online Education beyond a crisis

By Draego Zubiri | Project Manager at FutureLearn

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, educational institutions all over the world have sought to ensure the continuity of educational provision. For many organisations, this has meant exploring and experimenting with online education in some shape or form. For some, this has meant complementing an existing offering with new online components; others have gone further still and fully substituted a face to face offering with a digital one. The spike in online educational provision globally reflects the desire of many universities to continue delivering high quality education to learners in a time of crisis and disruption.

With many universities now venturing further into this territory, wider organisational and strategic questions are being posed to educational leaders. How does online education fit within the overall learning strategy? What is the role of online education in the short term for the organisation? Most importantly: What will its role be in the long term? 

Just a short term solution?

While many universities have rushed to start delivering education online as a means of risk mitigation and to ensure educational continuity, some have yet to determine whether online teaching and learning will hold a meaningful place in their wider strategies for educational delivery after the global pandemic. Will universities move from simply providing emergency remote teaching in the short term to providing high quality online teaching and learning experiences for both students and faculty alike? 

The Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access (PADILEIA), is a digitally-led educational programme which aims to provide educational opportunities and pathways to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. King’s College London, FutureLearn, Kiron Open Higher Education, American University of Beirut, and Al-Al Bayt University work together to deliver a range of online short courses (MOOCs), study tracks, and foundation certificates through both fully online and blended means. With a robust digital strategy in place, the programme has continued to deliver value to its target learners and beyond. We believe that there are key benefits of digital learning which can be applied, not just in a crisis context. 

We’ve summarised four reasons why we believe digital learning is critical for long term sustainability and excellence.

Reason 1: Providing high-quality education at scale 

Online education can deliver learning at scale, regardless of time and place. This argument is already well understood and in a pandemic context has clear safety benefits: minimising the physical contact students need to have with each other and with the outside world. The benefits go far beyond the safety element, however. Learners have more flexibility around how they take up their learning in both synchronous and asynchronous ways. Additionally, remote learning means students are not limited by the need to travel to study space, potentially broadening the accessibility of courses. It also means class sizes do not need to be limited by physical spaces, offering organisations the opportunity to tap into new geographies and demographics. The PADILEIA project supports Syrian refugees as well as underserved students in Jordan and Lebanon, but outside of this target group we have seen close to 7,500 refugees worldwide enrolling in King’s College London courses on FutureLearn to date. One student commented that they enjoyed the new way of learning and that it had given them a boost towards achieving their objectives.

Reason 2: Online education helps build organisational resilience

As the events of 2020 have made clear, organisations must adopt online strategies for educational delivery if they are to remain resilient to external shocks, such as natural calamities and pandemics. Having an online delivery strategy safeguards an organisation from severe operational disruption should campuses be compromised for whatever reason, as both staff and students would already be equipped and acclimatised to make the switch at short notice. This doesn’t mean an end to face-to-face education. Universities must continue to refine and build on their existing expertise and this includes their traditional and existing face-to-face offerings. However, they must also start building their in-house online capability in some manner, whether by developing their own separate online offerings as alternative options for learners, or by building online components into their face-to-face content.

Reason 3: Online offerings are beginning to mature

Over the past few decades, there have been significant improvements in the functionality and features provided by educational tools and technologies. Increased competition in the EdTech market, as well as the provision of open-source educational technologies, has improved both the functionality and the affordability of online learning resources. Once awkward and unwieldy, a one-sided, didactic activity, online learning now places an increased focus on the learner experience. Content designers seek to enhance accessibility and ensure platforms are conducive to forming social learning environments and communities, as pioneered by FutureLearn. Across the PADILEIA courses, well-designed discussion prompts are built into the learning material, providing learners with opportunities to engage with and learn from one another as relevant to the subject matter, whether this be learning English as a second language or real-world business skills

Additionally, online offerings, such as short courses, programmes, and degrees, have become more embedded over time in the education space, with greater recognition of their merit by educational institutions, employers, and their learners. A recent example includes the ‘Common Microcredential Framework’ by the European MOOC Consortium (EMC), a large network of 400 HEIs, which provides an agreed standard for flexible and stackable microcredentials online. Institutions who refuse to innovate in online learning will become increasingly outdated and find themselves losing out to these new offerings.

Reason 4: Increased demand for online provision 

Over the span of the global pandemic, the PADILEIA online courses (hosted on the FutureLearn platform) have seen a significant increase in uptake by learners worldwide, increasing total reach from roughly 187,000 learners pre-pandemic to 421,000 learners since the pandemic began. Learners often leave favourable reviews commenting on the benefits of online content, such as how easy the courses are to access. One student reviewing a Basic English course commented that it was advantageous to be able to relisten to audio clips in their own time, since it allowed them to focus and take time over the part of learning they found most difficult. 

Now that both faculties and learners have had to adapt to this new way of teaching and learning, we will likely find that previously technology-reluctant educational stakeholders are now open to the prospect of online learning in the future. Indeed, some learners may find that they prefer this style of provision as opposed to the traditional face to face approach, or otherwise prefer a mixture of both. Similarly, previously reluctant faculty and staff who are beginning to explore this new teaching space, as well as develop new expertise and specialisms in this area of educational delivery, may find they do not want to relinquish the new benefits. At PADILEIA we believe the global pandemic is likely to amplify the demand and relevance of online education, and so in order to remain relevant universities must ensure they are able to meet this demand adequately. 

A crossroads for institutions

The global pandemic has brought universities and other educational providers to a crossroads. They will need to take a hard look at their current offerings, and decide what may be complemented and supplemented, if not substituted, by an online offering. Additionally, they will need to ensure that this new learning strategy is supported by appropriate staffing and expertise which may need to be introduced into the organisation, with the possible introduction of new roles such as instructional designers, learning technologists, coaches and trainers for online teaching and learning, and so on. 

The 21st century calls for a holistic approach to educational delivery, one where online provision will need to be strategically considered and refined. New forms of online teaching and learning excellence will emerge for those who choose to take up the mantle now and proactively begin crafting their strategy for online educational delivery for the long haul.

Articles Digital Learning

Helping young Syrian refugees to access university and support their communities

Across Lebanon and Jordan, many talented young people are desperate to study for a university qualification but face significant barriers. In this article, colleagues from King’s College London discuss a unique project that is helping displaced young Syrians to gain vital skills and access higher education.

“What I really want is to be able to go to university….” This is what we heard again and again from displaced Syrian youth in Lebanon and Jordan at the start of our project, PADILEIA (Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access), three years ago. As university graduates ourselves, we were not surprised: we were very aware of how university had transformed our own lives for the better.

Across Lebanon and Jordan, an estimated 76,000 Syrian young people aged 18 to 25 want to study for a university qualification but face significant barriers – such as recognition of prior learning, English language ability (a key requirement for regional universities), access to the internet, and disrupted schooling. 

The PADILEIA project was conceived to tackle these barriers. Together, an unusual partnership of three universities (King’s College London, American University of Beirut and Al al-Bayt University in Jordan), one non-governmental organisation (Kiron Open Higher Education in Germany) and a private company (FutureLearn, based in the UK) are helping to support the higher educational needs of Syrian refugee students in Jordan and Lebanon via digital and blended learning. The project is also extending this support to disadvantaged local students in Lebanon and Jordan.

Accessing higher education

The PADILEIA project offers students the chance to take Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in subjects such as Business, Entrepreneurship and Healthcare. Designed by King’s College London academics, the MOOCs provide ‘taster’-style introductions to courses, and can accommodate unlimited numbers of students. There’s also an English language MOOC, to help students brush up their skills in readiness for university.

For students who want to dive deeper, the project offers eight-month Foundation degree courses, helping students to meet entrance requirements for universities in the region and abroad. Students are selected by interview, removing the need for past exam certificates, which many students are unable to provide due to school disruption. Alongside academic learning, students receive career counselling and mentoring on university and scholarship applications. Over the last two years, 47 of our Foundation course graduates earned scholarships and the courses received a 95% recommendation rate from participants. In total, 183 students have graduated since 2017, and another 240 students are projected to graduate by July 2021.

We also have over 5000 students studying on curated blended courses that are recognised by local universities and can be used as credit to transfer to these institutions. 

Online and blended learning 

PADILEIA courses are principally delivered online – students are able to study from home, which makes our offerings very flexible and accessible. We also provide face-to-face blended learning in our PADILEIA Campus, based in Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, enabling students to engage with the course in a group setting. Facilitators with subject knowledge guide students through the courses, and offer support on digital and English language skills. 

This blended approach and online support mechanisms enabled our programmes to respond fast when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. We were able to quickly provide internet bundles and tablets for our students and to move all study programmes fully online, whilst maintaining student support. The facilitators knew their students well, so the transition was smooth and academic achievement hasn’t suffered. 

As Ismail Ababneh, VP for Administration and Student Affairs at Al al-Bayt University highlights: “The training that our instructors received on online teaching within the PADILEIA project has helped us to move swiftly and at very short notice to online instruction at Al al-Bayt University in response to Covid-19.”

We don’t know what the future holds in terms of face-to-face instruction – but we have developed programmes that can be delivered during uncertain and challenging times, when conditions change very quickly. This is the reality anyway for displaced populations; they have seen their world change completely in a matter of days and so they are ready, yet again, to adapt, to work hard and fulfil their dreams, if supporting structures are in place.

For us at King’s, it has been a very clear lesson: programmes created to respond to displacement crises can be very useful indeed for other forms of disruption too, such as Covid-19, experienced by all of PADILEIA’s partners from Beirut to Berlin, from Mafraq to London. Even in the middle of a global pandemic, refugee students continue to wish to study and get a university degree. We hope to continue to contribute to this.