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How to run an online MA with an international cohort

Clare Bentall, from the IOE, was part of a team that developed one of the first online programmes in the Institute of Education.

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6 July 2020

In 2007, Clare Bentall, Nicole Blum, Doug Bourn launched a new MA in Development Education and Global Learning in the Institute of Education (IOE).

The programme was aimed at an international cohort, mainly of part-time education professionals, so the team opted for an asynchronous online approach.


Reasons to opt for asynchronous

We knew our cohort could not attend the IOE and were based around the world in different time zones, so we needed a model that provided structure but flexibility for students, so they could manage their own time, while also feeling part of a cohort.

Challenges of asynchronous

Asynchronous teaching requires up-front investment of time in designing good activities, which can to some extent run themselves, and then a role in monitoring, encouraging and responding to students as they work. In comparison to face-to-face teaching, much more time is needed before a module starts, but during a module, less time is needed at any one time. If I compare a 3-hour face-to-face class for an MA module with the equivalent session online, I spend less time on Moodle reading posts and commenting over a 2 week period than I would in running 2 x 3 hour classes (unless I have a very large group and I am the only tutor).

What is more challenging is that the time is not in fixed blocks. It is necessary for the students to know you are there, so we make sure we post something at the beginning of each 2-week period, that we log in a couple of times a week to read posts, check progress, encourage participation, and comment on group products. So, it can feel like the teaching is continual in a way that a weekly face-to-face class doesn’t.

Benefits of asynchronous

By using a group task-based approach we comment more extensively on the group products, rather than having to reply to each individual post. Students understand they are free to discuss in their groups and that they will have more formative and summative feedback on their group activities. This helps manage the time spent as a teacher and helps foster a sense of collaboration and peer learning in the groups.

Another benefit is that you really do hand over control and responsibility for the learning to the learner. If you design good tasks that run themselves, you can concentrate on being responsive and supportive, focusing on providing feedback and guiding them, rather than having to deliver lots of content, which they may or may not be able to absorb in one go.

Personally, I find lecturing for an hour tiring, and more uncomfortable as it is not possible to tell from a quiet audience what they are learning. Having recently run a synchronous virtual training session over 2 hours for another project, I have also experienced how tiring and less productive the synchronous model is, compared  to face to face or asynchronous online teaching. It is not possible to have the level of dialogue between participants as is possible with asynchronous learning.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that teaching online can be wonderfully engaging. It allows you to interact with learners in a range of different and creative ways – e.g. via discussion forums, videos, blogs, collaborative projects, etc. – and to work with students who might not otherwise be able to access postgraduate education. When well designed, online learning also encourages students to bring their own diverse experiences and ideas to the course, so I always find that I learn something new each time I run a module. - Dr Nicole Blum, Senior Lecturer / Module Leader and Tutor.

Student-staff synchronous elements

We offer all students 1:1 synchronous tutorials to help them with their coursework, or if they have an issue they wish to discuss with their personal tutor, and we recommend some of the IOE writing support that takes place through webinars. The students can get to know us and contact us 'live'. (We have very short talking head videos to introduce us, the programme and the main core module, which students watch in their own time).

Optional student-student synchronous elements

We do not offer formal opportunities for synchronous interaction between students. Some of our students have organised their own synchronous informal discussions on other social networking platforms if they are in a small group where this is possible.

Some full time students, often from other programmes doing our modules as options, have been asking for more synchronous opportunities, perhaps because they anticipated more lecture style rather than task-based teaching. So we are exploring some optional opportunities for students to log on at the same time as each other, maybe through Blackboard Collaborate, or to arrange to meet synchronously outside the module space, whilst working on tasks. However, this cannot be compulsory as not all of our students will be able to participate. Most of our tasks on our modules are group tasks so our students interact with each other throughout and do get a sense of belonging to the cohort through the asynchronous work they do.

Feedback from students

We have very good feedback on our MA and our modules, as well as very good reviews from our external examiners. Students know what they are signing up for and they have chosen the online format, so this is in our favour, but we have found a formula that works. We do get bits of feedback on what we can improve, along the lines of asking for more clarity of communication over a task or widening our choice of readings. We are alert to new tools and do introduce some of these as we review modules, but we haven’t had feedback that requires us to change the basic principles we use.

I have had a wonderful experience of online learning with UCL thus far. I did my undergraduate degree via distance learning and must say that I have enjoyed the online support on the MA a lot more. Feedback and response time are always quick and instructions are always clear. Despite the time difference and internet connectivity issues, I found all the UCL platforms easy to use and learn from. Video introductions to modules and the IOE writing webinars were especially helpful. I also enjoyed taking part in group assignments with students from around the world. It definitely helps to give you a global perspective and is particularly helpful in this MA, being about development education and global learning. - Robyn Mafanya, Full-time student based in South Africa.

How the programme was designed

We were lucky to be part of the funded PREEL project in the IOE to support a small number of teams to develop online modules and programmes. We had a lot of support from the Knowledge Lab on the basic principles of online teaching and learning, guidance on how to use Blackboard (as it was then). It took at least a couple of terms to get from nothing to module proposals and detailed module designs. As part of a project, we had allocated time to do this. We also developed two modules first (one fully online and one blended) and used these to test our approach, before designing the rest of the MA. Both time and support were crucial for the success of our model.

Among the lessons I have gained from developing and running the MA are the need to recognise the diverse needs and experiences of the students and provide spaces and opportunities for their voices to be heard and shared with their peers; continue to review the modules and adapt where possible to requests from students, including more diverse forms of readings and changing the forms of assessment. - Professor Douglas Bourn, Programme Leader

Clare's top tips:

1. Keep it simple: Work out a simple formula for the design of each online session / class that you then repeat. Students become familiar with it and know what to expect. They want to worry about learning, not about trying to decipher the structure of the module. Don’t think you have to use all the fancy tools available in week 1. Try something that you and the students can manage and get that working and then see what else you might want to add in later.

2. Realise and accept you can’t replicate face to face, but there are things that the online environment does well, so take advantage of these – such as allowing you to see all the discussion a group engages in when preparing a task as it is all recorded in the discussion forums.

3. Remember what it feels like to sit staring at a screen for too long and design your teaching so students don’t have to go through that.

4. Be very clear to students about how you will engage (eg. often you will log on), how much work you are expecting them to do for each task and per week, how available you are etc.

5. Don’t write too much in the Moodle space for a session / class. Be concise – let them see an overview of that session without having to scroll through masses of text.

If I am allowed a 6thbe nice to yourself in your expectations of doing this for the first time and be open with the students about it being a new experience all round. They will probably then help by making some useful suggestions on what works best for them. 

Image credit: Dylan Ferreira / Unsplash.