Students’ experiences an asset to developing online degree education

Our work in developing online degree education nationally has continued with a focus on students and their experiences. Our national Online Degree Working Group has done important work in gathering student views on various aspects of online degree education. Student views should be heard and taken seriously in any development work of degree education, and online programmes are no different.

My recent interview on page 17 of SeOppi magazine for the Association of Finnish eLearning Centre lists some of the things that online degree students have named as important aspects to consider when developing online degree education. The topics were mostly related to organisation of studies, collaboration and contact with peers and staff, as well as self-management. The challenges raised by online degree students do not really differ from those often posed by on-site students, but the solutions in the digital context may differ greatly from those on campus.

Pedagogical design of online degree programmes should therefore consider holistically from both student and staff point of view how to make the online degree programme work so that students’ enjoy studying and are able to progress according to their personal study plan. Student well-being was the topic of our latest webinar offered by the national eAMK project.

I will be presenting my research and discussing some of the work done by the national Online Degree Programme Working Group at Online Educa Berlin. Read my interview on page 17 of SeOppi magazine and come and see my presentation at OEB in the session Supporting Learner Progress with Design and Data

Possibilities for internationalisation online

Internationalisation is an integral part of today’s higher education and globalised working life. Traditional ways of internationalisation include student and teacher exchange and collaboration on international projects, as an example. These can also be achieved in an online learning context, e.g. through virtual exchange and collaboration with international partners.

Online degree education can offer many possibilities for authentic international activities and experiences for students. Studying in an international online degree gives students globally access to degree education, thus bringing into the global degree study arena their own culture and local setting. Students thus take part in collaborative learning in multicultural virtual groups, acquiring many soft skills required by today’s working life.

An international online degree can also offer new opportunities for teachers, including co-teaching online with an international partner school or acting as visiting lecturer on an online course. These experiences strengthen the internationalisation of the degree education and broaden the learning experience for the students.

As a whole, higher education institutions can broaden their international activities through online degree education and digitalisation of learning. I am excited to be talking more about this topic as a keynote speaker at International Congress of Distance Learning in Brazil organised by  The Brazilian Association for Distance Education (ABED):

Stay tuned for more updates!

The importance of first impressions and a good start

New autumn semester has arrived and with that new online degree programme students from all around the world.  A smooth start to online studies is crucial in creating the motivation and positive vibe, as many of the students are studying online in higher education for the first time.

A short survey in 2018 and 2019 on previous online study experience showed that almost half of online degree programme students were studying online for the first time, whilst less than a quarter each stated they had taken either online or blended courses prior to entering the online degree programme, thus leaving only a fraction of those who had extensive online study experience. Therefore, it is important that students are given a good basis for starting their studies in terms of online study methods, technical tools, and collaboration online, to name a few.

One way to give students a kick-start to their online studies is to hold an orientation session on campus. This gives students an opportunity to meet their peers and get to know them before connecting online, which can make it easier to continue collaboration on coursework online. Also, another important aspect that speaks for holding a session on campus is BYOD, i.e. students get a chance to bring their device in and check that all school systems and programmes work properly in preparation for online study. In addition, a kick-start to first semester courses can ensure students understand pedagogical choices of online study.

On the other hand, as we are talking about online degrees, it is fair to ask why not offer the orientation online as well? This is a good option for those who are not able to travel due to work or life situation and prefer to start their studies online from the beginning. With just-in-time support to gain access to tools, people and information, online orientation offers the same positive start as on-site, with even possible benefits over on-site.  An online orientation gives an authentic experience of upcoming online study and offers a good platform to test how systems work in practice. Meeting peers in the online orientation prepares them for online communication during studies, and courses start in the intended online learning platform.

Some of the questions that we can ask when preparing the students for a motivating start in online degree education are:

  • What are the first impressions of online study given in the orientation?
  • What are the first impressions given by first semester online courses?
  • What are the first impressions students get of technical tools?
  • What are the first impressions for the level of support provided?

We want students to enter their higher education path with confidence, be it online or onsite.Each piece of the puzzle is equally important in creating a start that gives online degree students keys to success in their online studies.

International and Intercultural Online Degree Education

One great aspect of online learning is that it opens up the entire world for us to explore. Through the means of online tools we are able to interact with people we would not otherwise meet, gain experiences from places we may not be able to visit, and join communities that might be difficult to find locally. Online learning offers flexible opportunities for combining studies, work, travel, family – no matter the location of each. However, are we always prepared for the intercultural situations we face online? How could we better prepare our students for working and communicating in today’s multicultural virtual work?

One part of my research on online degree design deals with international and intercultural aspects of online degree education. I am investigating how our students studying in an international degree programme experience international and intercultural aspects of their online education. This research will support the design of the online degree as internationalisation is one important aspect of future visions of education. Work in a multinational, multicultural business is the future for many of our graduates, and online studies should offer opportunities to gain skills that are essential in intercultural and international online contexts. Through my research I am hoping to find answers to which aspects of international online degree education can support those skills.

If I was now a student entering Higher Education, my choice would be an online degree, as I love travelling and experiences new cultures, and an online degree would give me a chance to study irrespective of location. However, as I am a teacher, I need to think about my student in that situation, and try to create innovative solutions for enabling intercultural dialogue and offer opportunities for internationalisation online. With my research I am also hoping to learn how students experience the intercultural skills of teachers and other university staff.  It is essential that also staff have the skills and will to work in intercultural and international online contexts.

Developing National Online Degree Education

I am extremely lucky to be able to coordinate a team of experts working together to develop online degree cross-studies in applied higher education. The group is part of eAMK project, a national project where all universities of applied sciences in Finland have joined forces to create a platform for year-round online course selection. The aim in the project is to develop online pedagogy and create quality online courses for flexible and accessible studies in applied higher education. The eAMK Online Degree group is working to share good practices and create a common understanding about online degree education at a national level.

So far the eAMK Online Degree group has two main results:

  1. Recommendations for the use of the term ‘Online Degree’ in relation to ‘Part-time Studies’, as these are used differently at HEIs and there is a need for consistent and clear use of these terms (read the article in Finnish here – English translation to follow!)
  2. Webinar Series for Planning and Implementing Online Degree studies, organised in collaboration with XAMK, TUAS and eAMK. The webinar series gives a practical tips and examples from different universities of applied sciences around Finland, and is the first of a kind for developing online degree education! See the full programme here (only in Finnish, sorry!)

The next step for developing national online degree education is to share my Pedagogical Model for Designing Online Degrees in Higher Education (PIMOD) based on my research results thus far, and co-design with the eAMK Online Degree working group the aspects that they see important in national cross-studies and online degree education. Can’t wait to see how the model develops with them!

Online Degree Design and Pedagogy

What is my research all about? And how did it all get started? I have been working as a teacher for almost two decades now. All this time I’ve always been interested in planning and designing various guides, processes and checklists in order to help others and make life easier. I started online teaching early on in my career, but even then my focus was always in pedagogy, rather than technology. Although I have to admit I like a bit of tech, too…

When my employer TUAS decided to transform our International Business from a traditional on-site daytime degree programme into an online degree programme, I had the opportunity to investigate how a pedagogical approach could be taken into consideration throughout the design of a degree programme in an online environment. Moreover, at TUAS has a specific pedagogical approach, Innovation Pedagogy, which utilises teaching and learning methods that had to be considered in the online implementation of the degree programme.

I started my research with collaboration between various stakeholders to create the below Pedagogically Informed Model for Online Degrees (PIMOD). I have presented this model so far in the following conferences: eAPRIL 2017, XIII National Symposium of Higher Education Research in Finland 2017 and FERA Conference on Education 2018.

I am currently developing the model further through design-based research by investigating the experiences of online degree programme teachers, online degree programme students and those coordinating online degree programmes at other HEIs. In addition, I am looking into international and intercultural aspects of online degree education and how that can be considered in the design of the online degree programme. Each stage brings new aspects to the model, giving it a more holistic approach. I will be sharing some of the key results here as they become available.

The Journey Begins

Entering the journey of research is like walking a narrow path in a dense forest… everywhere you look, you see something new and intriguing. Sometimes you get lost and then you try to find your way back. The path may seem long and difficult at times but the way to final destination is getting clearer every day. Thanks for joining me!

If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.

Barack Obama

Chitwan, Nepal, M Joshi 2016