Bricks or Clicks ?

Patricia Ryser-Welch, Department of Electronics, explores the uses of online learning

York’s two campuses offer beautiful surroundings to its students, who benefit from an excellent face-to-face education based on current research. Like in many traditional universities, each of these individuals has met strict enrolment criteria. Such campuses are vibrant places, mostly full of young adults in their late teens and early twenties, living, studying, and networking. These universities are important places in developing the future of our society, but this community of students only represents a minority of our society: those who can afford the time to attend day-time sessions and who have financial support or savings available to them during their years of full-time study.


Adapting delivery

Traditional models of delivering higher education courses maybeunsuitable to part-time and full-time workers, parents, carers, and prisoners. Despite offering excellent disability support, some mental-health sufferers and some disabled adults may not perceive the typical university environment to be ideal. Another alternative is offered by Distance Learning, which offers the flexibility of studying in one’s own time and in one’s own home. A successful example of widening participation in higher education relies on the open policy at the heart of the Open University (OU). This organisation provides course materials and more importantly tutorials outside of normal working hours. To reach out to its students effectively, it continually embraces new information communication technologies. Gone are the years when the late night BBC broadcast the OU’s course materials. Most recently, an increased number of face-to-face tutorials are being delivered using up-to-date web-based media. Since its creation, it has shortened the distance between home and a campus as well as addressing some of the educational divide in our society.

Both the University of York and the Open University thrive in their own ways by meeting the needs of their targeted cohort of students. Nonetheless, they must keep their teaching and learning up-to-date, so that their students can successfully meet the challenges of the 21st century. Distance learning has benefited in its development from face-to-face education in the past. Now can face-to-face education learn from distance learning?

Nowadays lecturers should include in their teaching the opportunity for the students to develop 21st century skills, alongside delivering their main subjects. It can be a challenging task to develop our students’ IT literacy, higher-level thinking skills, communication skills and understanding of the world. Yet it does not have to be such a daunting one. The younger generation has grown up at the same time as ICT has developed in the last two decades. They would probably welcome techniques adopted by Distance Learning in the delivery of their courses; it is likely to help them to engage with their study in their own way. Some readers may disagree with such suggestions. Nonetheless, it is worth looking into how our teaching, learning and assessment strategies could include some distance and click elements, so that they include more active method of learning rather than passive ones.

Lecturing can communicate information to a large audience, but remains still a one-way communication. The assessment of our students’ comprehension often occurs during the labs, when marking formative and summative assessment. Would it not be better if it could happen during the lecture itself?

Student engagement

It is a regular occurrence to observe a mobile device or a laptop being used by our students. These tools offer access to social media: Google Hangouts,Facebook, Twitter, and chat, amongst others. Files can be shared instantaneously and discussion between a lecturer and its group of students can happen more openly. Teaching online can use chat rooms to ask questions to the students. It is always a satisfying experience to witness how students can learn from each other in a controlled environment. With careful planning, an hour long lecture can become a multi-way communication by including several short Q&A sessions. It gives a welcome break to the students and helps them to revisit ideas. The strongest students in the audience can support others at the same time. From such discussions, the author has witnessed knowledge being transfer from a group of students and has been able to assess informally how well her students are understanding the information being communicated. Finally, voting tools like provide a simple voting tool for a large audience.

Regular Interactive Computer Marked Assessments provide quick and valuable information about the whole group progress; whether it is a summative or formative assessment. Such active learning methods empower the students in acknowledging independently their areas of improvements. The lecturers benefit too; no two groups of students are same and planning can be tailored more specifically to meet the needs of learners. With little training, Google Forms, Kahoot, FiftySneaker and SurveyMonkey are examples of web tools that offer an easy way to create online assessment. The online tests are automatically marked and a readable performance report can be downloaded almost immediately.

Distance learning also includes group assessment. In this environment, students interact with each other to write a wiki or a similar online document. Video conferencing, forums, and emails are essential for successful outcomes. Each student update is recorded, which helps immensely in assessing the quality and actual participation of all who are involved. This type of assessment activity could benefit face-to-face education. Many students may go back to their home between terms, and become distance learners themselves. This type of group assessment develops not only communication skills and IT literacy, but also an understanding of the world alongside higher-thinking skills.

Distance learning and face-to-face education, should not be been seen as opposites. Following the principles in Taijitu (yin yang) in Chinese philosophy, these two types of delivery of higher education can complement each other, to develop and maintain a high standard of education. In fact, the University of York offers some post-graduate qualifications using distance learning (, to reach mature post-graduate students who wishes to develop their skills. Also, the Open University has yet abandoned some face-to-face tutorials. In many degree courses, the student must attend at least one summer school.  As a result, our students can face the challenges of the 21st century with more confidence and ability. Also as effective educators, our teaching practice can only improve by experimenting with these new tools available to us; then we can reach out in a more active way our students.

Ryser-Welc_bioThe author is currently studying towards a Phd in Intelligence System and taking part to the course Preparing for Academia. After teaching for more than a decade in Further Education, Information Technology and mathematics, she is now an associate lecturer at the Open University. She currently teaches and assesses in three courses: T174 Introduction to Engineering, M250 Object-Oriented Java Programming and M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design. Since the rise of the Internet and World Wide Web, she has been adapting to the new technological development with a keen interest. She is a graduate of the Ecoles Neuchateloise d’Informatique de Gestion, where she has studied computer science. Later on, she studied at the Open University mathematics as under-graduate  and then computer science for commerce and the Industry at a  Post-graduate level.