A good way to keep students on a quality track

May 16, 2003

Tutors can have a closer rapport with students online than they have in class. It leads to higher attainment - music to ministers' ears. Tim Collin writes.

Images of students in street protests over top-up fees may grab headlines, but delve a little deeper and another issue is dominating the UK education agenda: teaching quality. It may not have the drama or human interest of funding or student access, but it will have just as much influence in shaping tomorrow.

Is the quality of education consistent and of high-enough quality throughout the UK? A recent Ofsted and Adult Learning Inspectorate report, which addressed the quality issue, says employers feel education is not relevant enough to the workplace. The government's Future of Higher Education white paper went some way towards setting out new standards for quality, but more needs to be done. With students investing up to four years and significant amounts of money in higher education, they should receive the return on investment they deserve.

Excellence in teaching, easy access to a range of teaching materials and information technology resources, good teacher-to-student ratios and consistency are what the government wants to see in every higher education institution. But this is easier said than done. Institutions are increasingly realising the role e-learning can play in helping to meet their quality goals.

E-learning offers one of the most innovative learning methods, combining traditional lecturing with online environments, ranging from basic online textbooks to fully online degrees. It involves chat rooms with peers, online tutoring, online assessments and so on. E-learning is also able to provide extremely rich learning and teaching capabilities compared with traditional classroom-based learning.

In the offline world, it can be extremely difficult to control quality levels because lecturers spend only a small percentage of time with their students. A student today probably has one weekly hour-long tutorial and then two or three lectures with hundreds of other students. This means that teaching is quite impersonal. Lecturers do not have the access or the opportunity to gain a real insight into how the student is responding to the teaching or how much time they are spending on reading the suggested class material.

In comparison, some online learning solutions offer lecturers the ability to track each of their students' learning paths. They can view when a student is falling behind or not keeping up with their reading material. They can do something about it. This helps build a more motivating and personal learning environment. In turn, this ensures that student retention and success rates are higher. Feedback from some UK institutions using e-learning indicates that students and lecturers feel they have a stronger relationship and a better quality of education when interacting online rather than in a classroom environment.

Higher education should not settle for second best. This means an education system open to new teaching and learning solutions and embracing innovative technology. Moreover, it means accepting that there may be a more effective learning solution than traditional classroom-based teaching.

Tim Collin is European director of WebCT.

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