Fielding phone calls at 3am is but one of the challenges facing 'instructors' who preside over the University of Liverpool's virtual classrooms. Yoram Kalman reports.
The benefits of the 24-hour virtual classroom are well recorded but it can take reversion to "old technology" to bring the message home. As head of an online programme, I received one such lesson a couple of months ago when I was woken at 3am by a student phoning to discuss changing to another module.
Why should a call in the small hours have taken me by surprise?
Our students access their module work every minute of every day worldwide and part of my role is to speak to them. But this was the first time it had happened in the three years since Liverpool University started running part-time online masters programmes in business and information technology with its Netherlands-based partner KIT eLearning.
With about a third of the non-UK students from North America, a fifth from the Far East, a quarter from western Europe and the rest from more than 50 other countries, the sun never sets on our classrooms. This also means we face some tricky situations, particularly cultural. It helps that we recruit academic staff from around the world. But even deciding on job titles proves awkward.
We wanted to call staff "tutors", but the title was unacceptable in the US because of its association with high-school students and private extracurricular tuition. We couldn't use "professor" because it meant anything from a junior teacher to senior academic. "Teacher" was fine in many countries, but in others it was reserved for non-university education.
Liverpool staff rejected "lecturer" as they felt that lecturing is the last thing they do online - rather they teach, moderate discussions, grade, give feedback and provide support. After floating "moderator" to general rejection, we arrived at "instructor".
Our students study modules of six to eight weeks in small groups. Modules are taught one at a time to allow students maximum focus. These are followed by a few months of work on a dissertation, supported by a personal adviser. Finally, when students have completed eight modules, they are invited to a graduation ceremony in Liverpool.
Students and instructors can also meet face to face at extracurricular events organised around the world. Last December, they were joined by vice-chancellor Drummond Bone in Liverpool. Grading-related questions regularly come up during these face-to-face meetings, as Liverpool's pro vice-chancellor Peter Goodhew learnt at a student event in Singapore.
Explaining the idiosyncrasies of the British grading system is still hard despite the simplicity of Liverpool's online system.
Liverpool's transparent approach to its online learning culture has also presented a challenge. Our collaborative classes require students to post most assignments into the classroom for fellow students to read and comment on. We knew that this would turn the classroom into an exciting repository of opinions and examples from "the real world". What we were not expecting was the number of students who would measure their academic work against that of the "top" students in the class. This can snowball so that ambitious students start to invest more than 30 hours every week in their studies. To keep this under control, we have taken steps that allow staff to identify a student on the path to "burn out" and help prevent it.
We have also defined an upper limit on the number of postings students can make each week. There cannot be many institutions that cap the amount of work a student puts in.
The most complicated logistical challenge has been ensuring each student worldwide has a copy of the right edition of the right book at the start of every module. We have had to build relations with publishers of academic titles to know, in advance, if a specific edition of a specific book will be in short supply anywhere and where alternative suppliers can be found.
We could have opted for online books, but students have made it clear that while studying online is a great solution, reading a textbook from a computer screen is not.
The most important lesson from all this?
In a global and groundbreaking project, nothing can be taken for granted.
The only way to make the right choices is to give each issue as much advance thought as possible, to solicit advice from diverse people from around the world, to make the choices, and then to listen to the feedback.
Well, almost. At 3am, it is sometimes forgivable to gently put the student off until the sun has risen.
Yoram Kalman is senior vice-president for academics at KIT eLearning, partner of the University of Liverpool worldwide.