"These aren’t just online classes but an online experience that equals face-to-face learning"
When the Covid-19 crisis hit, WMG was faced with the challenge of creating an entire learning environment that avoided face-to-face contact – and fast. This had to be secure, accessible and meet the high expectation of students.
Just a few months on, the department has been successfully delivering all of its Master's courses online. All this has been achieved without compromising WMG’s world-class learning and teaching experience, according to e-Business Management course leader, Dr Michael Mortenson.
Among the many hurdles he and colleagues faced was how to accommodate the needs of students who had returned home to countries in different time zones, identifying the best software platform for delivering the course and shifting around lecture schedules.
So what does this look like in practice?
Before the pandemic, teaching took place in groups of 34 students per module with a strict daily 9.00am to 6.30pm timeframe intended to replicate the demands of a business environment. Other conventions – such as breaks for lunch on campus and booking lecture room slots in advance – had to be followed.
Now, these rules no longer apply in the new world of remote learning. Flexibility has been key such as allowing e-BM students to complete study tasks at differing times, especially given many are from China which is several hours ahead while others are in zones behind the UK.
Lectures are being delivered via Microsoft Teams (known for its robust security) and there’s no limit to how many students can attend, unlike in a seminar room. Questions can be asked either directly or by posting to Chat. And anyone with internet speed issues can consult a handy advice pack prepared by the team.
The quality of tuition is equal to that which took place face-to-face points out Dr Mortenson. He emphasises these are not just ‘online classes’ but instead an ‘online experience’. The innovative use of software enhances the experience, for example Open Broadcast Studio software enables the speaker to lay webcam over slides. ‘By giving students a reference point they’re less likely to lose concentration and it provides a more personal touch.’
As before the Covid-19 crisis, students have been benefiting from learning in small groups following a 30-minute lecture. How this works is that around six people attend private virtual rooms to discuss in detail the topic covered in the preceding session or focus on long-running projects.
It’s Dr Mortenson’s belief that participants are more attentive and interactive outside a classroom. Initially, some were slow to turn on their cameras – ‘perhaps they hadn’t tidied their bedrooms’ – but this is now changing, with even the most reluctant students ‘who hadn’t asked a question all year’ contributing.
According to anonymous questionnaires completed by students after each module, feedback has been positive. Drop off rates have been zero, and enjoyment levels even higher than before the Covid-19 crisis.
It has been a learning experience not just for the students but also for the education team in WMG. The more technical elements of the e-BM course, such as machine learning, work better if pre-recorded than presented in a live lecture, enabling individuals to replay the content and work through at their own pace.
There is no escaping the fact that online interaction cannot replace face-to-face engagement entirely. When it comes to learning, there will always be value in human contact. However, WMG remains as committed as ever to preparing its students for work for years to come – and that means ensuring they’re fluent in the language of virtual communication. WMG will be adopting more of a blended teaching model going forward, meaning that online learning will complement in-person, small group activities.
That future is here to stay, even once the Covid-19 crisis is ended, says Dr Mortenson. “Online you’re not judged by the sweat on your brow but by the ability to time manage, be flexible and do business with those on the other side of the world.”
This article was published in June 2020.
Please note, WMG and the University of Warwick are reviewing teaching and learning delivery for 2020 and beyond, to follow a blended learning model. Blended learning will include online learning and face-to-face sessions in small groups. Online content may involve a mix of prerecorded lecture material, as well as interactive discussion sessions.