Case Study - Doing Distance Learning The Right Way

Dr Christopher Kay, Social Sciences and Humanities


This case study discusses the distance learning approach adopted as part of the part C module “Rehabilitation and Recovery”. The module adopted a flexible approach to learning which allowed for maximum student engagement and significantly enhanced the student experience. Through the use of small lecture chunks, interactive activities, a range of resources to accommodate different learning styles and regular communication with students (outlined below), this module represented an exemplar for how distance learning should be undertaken. It is easy to replicate and can be applied across a range of disciplines throughout the university. It also stands as proof that distance learning can be an effective way of delivering HE. Loughborough now has the infrastructure to deliver distance learning modules effectively which could enhance our accessibility to prospective students, particularly part time students or those who are unable to access HE through traditional means (further enhancing the university’s EDI agenda). 

1. Background

The emergence of COVID19 transformed the delivery of higher education, almost overnight.For the first time(formost) the digital world became the new home of higher education. Initially it was hoped that this would just be a temporary solution for the final few weeks of the semester, but it quickly became apparent that online learning washere to stay, for the time being at least. Having previously taught on a fully distance learning PGT programme, I wasaware of the challenges that are faced whenever teaching switches to online delivery, and the potential for anxietyamongst students when they are faced with an unknown method of module delivery. But I was also aware of the unlimited potential that online learning can offer if it is designed and delivered appropriately.In order to make theonline learning experience a positive one it is important to remember that online learning is not just in person teaching but through a laptop. It requires a different approach and a different skill set to more traditional forms of teaching. An approach which prioritises active learning over passive observation, community and collaboration. Using my knowledgeand experience, I was able to develop an approach which engaged my students virtually just as much as I had in person. One which made use of the existing virtual learning environment at Loughborough to its fullest, required minimaladaptation from students and produced significant positive outcomes across the teaching and learning experience.

My final year Rehabilitation and Recovery module will be the case study for how I did just that. 

2. Methodology

I adopted a full distance learning approach to my Rehabilitation and Recovery module. The keys to distance learning are flexibility, consistency, keeping activities short, maintaining a sense of structure, adding variety to cater for different learning styles and providing regular opportunities for communication. I did this in multiple ways: 

  • All of the content for the week was released at 9am every Monday morning. Allowing students to structure their weeks accordingly. 
  • Lectures were recorded ‘on demand’ and in 4 20–25-minute chunks, allowing students to digest the information at their own pace. The lectures were conversational in style, referencing multiple other sources of information that students could go on to explore outside of the lectures, all of which were signposted on the learn page (see appendix). All additional tasks were designed to be short (i.e. could be completed within 20 minutes). 
  • Students were provided with a ‘weekly checklist’ (see appendix), an interactive PDF which outlined all the tasks that needed to be done that week, along with optional tasks and, importantly, reminders to take breaks. This allowed them to keep track of their progress through the weeks and the module as a whole, while also demonstrating the progress they have made. 
  • Also, a weekly ‘test your memory’ quiz (see appendix), consolidating the key messages from the lectures/reading from each week 
  • Lectures and academic reading were supplemented with podcasts, youtube videos and blogs, all written and produced by those who have lived experience of rehabilitation and recovery. This allowed students to hear about the concepts under investigation from the mouths of those experiencing them. I regularly communicated with students through the module noticeboard (see appendix), at least once a week (but usually more), usually to introduce the topic for the week and to outline what the learn page contained. We also had weekly workshops on a Friday afternoon and a regular drop in on a Tuesday. It was important to ensure students knew where they could find me for a chat. 

Students reacted positively to the format of the module, suggesting that it enhanced their learning experience and made the module easier to engage with. Evidence of this will be provided below and in the appendix. 

3. Issues

The main potential barriers related to time and communication. This approach to teaching requires a good amount of up-front investment in order to make sure it runs successfully. Time is required to record the lecture, and to set up the various activities and reading tasks. I overcame this by setting time aside for module development, ensuring that the majority of materials were ready before teaching began. It was also important to make sure that the instructions were clear to the students in order to make sure they were able to utilise all of the content effectively. In order to get around this, I utilised the first workshop to highlight all of the resources that were available to them and how they would work. Communication is the key to overcoming distance learning barriers.  

4. Benefits

Students were appreciative of the lecture chunks, the weekly checklist and the test your memory quiz for each week. It was recognised that this provided the flexibility to allow students to manage their own learning at their own pace, to pause and take breaks when they needed to. The weekly checklist provided an added element of structure that the students on the module appreciated, while the test your memory quiz allowed for them to consolidate their learning. My approach to delivery was also noted by students as a positive, recognising the fact that I would communicate with them regularly and provide them with many ways to talk to me if they needed to. The regular drop ins and communication through the noticeboard were noted by students as a strength of the module over some of their others. 

5. Evidence of Success (if available)

The module had an overwhelmingly positive impact upon the student learning experience. This is evidenced through a wide variety of student feedback through emails, comments in the team’s chat and the module evaluation questionnaire, all of which are attached in the appendix. The module was also regularly recognised as valuable by student reps at the Schools SSLC. 

6. How can other academics reproduce this?

An advantage of this approach is that it can be applied to almost any discipline, with the exception of perhaps some more practical subjects. The principles of distance learning are universal and have been outlined above. The weekly checklists and test your memory quizzes are easy to design (template provided in the appendix) and, once they exist, can be easily replicated each week. The only limiting factor to this approach is the level of communication staff are willing to put in with their students. With students being at a distance it is possible for levels of communication to dip, whereas the opposite needs to occur for this approach to be successful. The more openly you communicate with students, the more successful the approach. 

7. Reflections

The approach taken with this module can be seen as a success. The student feedback is strong and the module was fun to deliver, I have no doubt that this was the appropriate approach to take. The key things that contributed to the success of this module were consistency and communication. Students on the module knew exactly what they were getting each week and when they were getting it. They also knew what was expected of them and that there were many opportunities to talk to me if they needed to. I would not have done anything differently this year. However, in terms of what to explore next, I would like to pursue the options for enhancing the virtual experience, utilising technology such as virtual reality and interactive software to enhance the student distance learning experience further. The infrastructure now exists for Loughborough to provide distance learning options, which would increase student intake but also enhance our EDI practices. It is to these opportunities I would now like to turn.

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