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Virtual Learning at Aston

How Aston University’s virtual classroom creates a positive approach to learning


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One of the key effects of digital transformation is the strengthening of focus on the customers’ needs, ‘customer-centricity’ is all around us now. In the education sector this has long been an issue, where there is a body of thought that the delivery of learning has evolved over the last century and a half in a way that is more beneficial to the teaching institution than those being taught, i.e. the customers.

We have moved a long-way from Victorian classrooms and rote learning, with a begowned teacher delivering wisdom from the front of the room – the so-called ‘sage on the stage’ approach, however the disruption being caused by new technologies is completely upending this process and bringing learning processes closer to the needs of learners.

We learn best, particularly as adults, through social interaction. We are programmed to avoid harming and embarrassing ourselves, and so as Nick Shackleton-Jones explains in his new book ‘How We Learn’, the lessons we learn quickest and best are those that prevent us from looking silly. This has two important implications for designing adult learning initiatives – articulating and sharing learning ideas helps you socialise them and in turn plays its part in granting you permission to practice new behaviours more confidently if you have discussed and explored them with others beforehand.

Richard Terry, the Network Learning Director for Aston University’s Corporate Client Solutions, recalls his approach to implementing online learning technology in executive development programmes “The key question was, what's the point? What are we going to achieve by using virtual classrooms, discussion forums and virtual learning environments?” before going on to explain that the ‘communities of practice’ work promoted by Etienne Wenger has been central to the design of the use of virtual technologies at Aston.

A part of this has been “the social-learning aspect based around discussion forums to try to get participants, if not exactly working as a team, certainly thinking in terms of a community of practise” he says. Terry comes from a project management background so was drawn to using the project management tool, Basecamp, as his gateway into offering social interaction in the learning environment. While project management is partly about scheduling and progress tracking, it is also focused on sharing ideas and reviewing.

The Basecamp platform, familiar to many as a tool for managing website builds, has been honed over a long time to connect participants and encourage discussion. One of its great attractions, according to Terry, is its simplicity to use, unlike many learning platforms that adorn themselves with a complex range of additional tools and features that are often more distracting or off-putting than valuable. “It's very stable. It's a very lightweight tool in the sense that it's not over-feature rich,” he says.

Aston University also has a range of other platforms, notably the Blackboard Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), specifically designed for learning, , but the ones Terry likes for the executive education participants are those that are easy to access and simple to use, such as Blackboard’s virtual classroom facility, Collaborate. He also makes the important point that by using a tool such as Basecamp, originally designed for project management, they subtly shift the concept of the learning engagement more towards it being a project (with a tangible outcome) and away from a pure academic learning experience. This can help create a more positive approach with the learning right from the start.

Even though a lot of things can be delivered virtually and digitally, there's still a big requirement from our clients to actually get their people in a room together face-to-face

Richard Terry’s colleague, Paul Butler, Executive Development Director at Aston, is closely involved with running and designing these interventions for client organizations. He notes that despite the increase in comfort with using online discussion platforms and other sharing technologies all his current clients still ask for face-to-face elements for their programs. “Even though a lot of things can be delivered virtually and digitally, there's still a big requirement from our clients to actually get their people in a room together face-to-face, to get all the wider benefits of physically networking and being able to talk face-to-face and see each other's body language, and just get to know each other better socially, as well as around the workplace.”

Butler is happy with this, as he recognizes that participants’ virtual interactions are easier, in terms of openness, trust and familiarity, if they have met each other in the real world beforehand; though it is not a prerequisite, and online interaction can clearly be conducted effectively without that having happened. Often the resistance to the online elements is greatest with more senior management, but Butler says this can be managed by explaining that these people already spend much of their time interacting virtually, be it by their iPhone, or Skype for Business, or conference calls – and that these pedagogic interactions should be no different to those.

Butler’s real enthusiasm for using virtual classrooms is in their adaptability however. When executives are timetabled to a traditional face-to-face program schedule, there is very little scope for changes to occur in real time in response to issues that arise in the sessions. With the addition of virtual sessions, if it emerges that there are areas that the participant group are not as strong on as was originally understood, or topics which need greater emphasis, then in a virtual classroom it is much simpler to access new material or add-in additional time slots, than a strict traditional format would allow. “In a standard face-to-face, if you've missed the brief and they're only there for a couple of days, you don't get a chance to deliver on that, which can lead to some issues in the participants' experience… the other beauty of the virtual classroom is that it can be delivered at any time to suit that group of participants. The fact that it can also be recorded if there are certain individuals that can't attend the virtual classroom live, they can actually come back and watch it later – and join in to post-session discussions.”

Richard Terry recalls that in a recent program “there was an issue to do with the mathematics underlying certain statistical concepts. The problems that people were having in the face-to-face environment were then addressed using the virtual classroom that absolutely focused on very specific statistical issues and basic concepts that needed to be readdressed.”

Aston have been using their virtual classrooms for over nine years now, and he is seeing both faculty and participants become more and more comfortable with using the platforms. 

Butler also sees some hidden benefits that virtual classrooms enable – allowing the less confident participants to ask questions of the faculty or share their thoughts via chat boxes, where they might otherwise just be silent in a face-to-face situation. The format also lends itself to generating discussion, “some of the faculty will open the session up and they will just say, ‘Okay, we covered these particular topics in the face-to-face workshop. What have you done?’ They then just leave the floor open to the group to take over and start explaining what they've done and start the discussions from there. It's facilitated, but it's actually led by the participants themselves,” he explains.

Aston have been using their virtual classrooms for over nine years now, and he is seeing both faculty and participants become more and more comfortable with using the platforms. Interestingly he does note that when it comes to opening up in the discussions, more senior managers are more circumspect about doing so. This is where having built trust in a traditional face-to-face session can still pay dividends. “We try and get them very, very comfortable with each other in the face-to-face, so that when we do actually come to the virtual classroom... it's a secure environment.” Younger generations, as a general rule, are much more familiar and comfortable with sharing personal information online, so this tends to be less of a barrier. Butler does also reflect that once people learn to open up and gain confidence sharing things in the virtual sessions, there is often a knock-on effect that they are then better at doing so back in the workplace too.

For Terry and Butler at Aston the use of virtual classrooms, discussion forums and other online sharing technologies is seen in no way as a wholescale replacement for traditional teaching structures, but a valuable expansion and extension to the opportunities they have available to them to best serve the management cohorts in Aston University’s Corporate Client Solutions centre. It allows them to focus both more flexibly and also more specifically on group and individual needs to create great impact for participants. Richard Terry acknowledges that some participants, like some faculty, take to the new platforms better than others, but the value delivered and benefits received are clearly being enjoyed by an ever-growing population of executive learners.

Over 50 years of pioneering commitment to research, teaching and enterprise has made Aston internationally renowned for delivering local and global impact. We have a bold vision for collaboration with our clients, creating and sharing the vital knowledge that helps them tackle their most pressing real-world challenges.

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