Expert Opinion

How do we make distance learning the best it can be?

In this post, Lyn Farrell, Online Learning Tutor at Leeds Beckett University, shares her experience of hosting a northern conference, bringing together expertise to ensure the best experience for higher education distance learners.
ALDinHE presentation

Distance learning course provision is one of the biggest changes – and challenges – for higher education, especially for those of us who work in academic skills development.

How do we reduce feelings of isolation in distance learners and how can we ensure that their experiences of learning are equal to that of on-campus students? What technology and methods are being used to develop academic skills in our distance learners? I knew that individual institutions, including Leeds Beckett, would have, or be planning, different approaches to meet this challenge and wanted to bring as many professionals together as possible, to share knowledge and good practice.

Professor Damien Page
Professor Damien Page speaking at the conference

The Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE) provides a platform for academic skills developers to do just this, both nationally through its conference, and by area, through the regional symposiums. I therefore organised the ALDinHE North Region summer symposium here at Leeds Beckett on 26 June, with the theme ‘Academic Skills Support for Distance Learners’.

We had 40 attendees from 15 different universities across the region: from academic librarians, online learning tutors and instructional designers to lecturers, team managers and service coordinators. Six presentations, from five institutions, were delivered on the day. We learned about instructional design pedagogy and practice, effective discussion board use, the effective use of webinars for online workshops and tutorials, and webinar technology to facilitate the inclusion of distance learner students in on campus classrooms for peer to peer learning. The afternoon was given to group discussions on six topics around distance learning, looking at reducing isolation, making asynchronous learning engaging, tools and technology to improve provision and the barriers we face in provision for distance learners.

The day proved to be a fantastic opportunity to learn from each other and I felt vindicated in raising the limit on attendee numbers due to exceptionally high demand, despite the fact that we were slightly cramped in the venue as a result! We had 100% attendance, with participants voicing how important this topic is to them. The feedback after the event was excellent, focusing on how networking and collaborating with other professionals leads to innovation in our own work.

ALDinHE talk

I think the day is best summed up in the feedback from those who took part. One participant said: “I don’t think I’ve come away with so many ideas from a one-day event in a long time.” Another said: “Very useful and interesting. I’ve taken a number of new ideas away from today, despite having expertise in e-learning.”

One important ‘takeaway’ from the day was that good practice in distance learning provision is good practice in on-campus provision. Providing engaging academic skills resources, ensuring rigorous support structures are in place and looking at ways to help students – and staff – develop the digital capabilities for effective study are things we should be providing for all students. These things combined will equip distance learners and campus students alike, with digital and graduate skills essential for life post-university.

Lyn Farrell

Lyn Farrell is a former Online Learning Tutor, working on the design and delivery of distance learning and teaching academic skills at Leeds Beckett University. Her research interests include creative writing in education, academic skills and digital literacy development and IT in Education.

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