Lessons in quality - delivering high-quality online international education during COVID-19

07 May 2021
Posted by Study Group

Lessons in quality - delivering high-quality online international education during COVID-19

When COVID-19 blocked travel and interrupted face-to-face studies, international education faced its greatest challenge in living memory. How could students across the world be supported in their studies if they could not learn alongside their peers in a physical classroom? Could they still pursue their ambitions to study in leading universities across the world?

The immediate answer was that if students could not meet their teachers and classmates physically, they must do so virtually. And this did not just mean listening to lectures and seminars. There would also need to be group discussions, online assignments and assessments, and regular opportunities to talk through problems and gain support. Students who were not able to practise their English in person would need lots of opportunities to do so online. And social connections mattered too. It was a huge task demanding enormous efforts from both teachers and students. 

A year on the initial results are in and they are a lot more positive than some anticipated. Student satisfaction, for example, was not only sustained, in some cases it even increased. Those who successfully completed their preparatory courses digitally earned the right to progress to university study in person as soon as it was safe to travel. Dreams remained intact. 

Excellent teaching and support online - Lessons from Lancaster  University

This experience was borne out in practise at Lancaster University International Study Centre, which welcomes students from across the world to study an International Foundation Year, Pre-Masters Programmes or English Language Preparation programmes before progressing into this top 10 UK university. 

Dr Mark Cunnington, UK and EU Chief Operating Officer at Study Group comments:

“Moving learning online at Lancaster University International Study Centre was unexpected and rapid. However, a number of benefits have emerged. Study Group has developed a Blended Learning Framework in line with sector best practice. This has guided the development of online learning and provided consistency of navigation and signposting for students.

"Staff have access to regular training, which enhances their digital skills greatly. Staff actively and voluntarily participate in a Community of Practice called the ‘Online Learning Enhancement Group’ (OLEG) which provides informal sharing of practice and support.”

Elaine Dahl, Head of Quality and Innovation at Study Group’s Lancaster University International Study Centre explains how the Blended Learning Framework works in practice to support successful student outcomes:

“Tutors are now facilitating live online learning sessions with students enjoying interacting using polling, questions, word clouds etc. An added advantage is that tutors have a greater insight into their students’ learning needs and strengths.

"Students are also engaging in tailored online activities via their Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) gaining immediate feedback. They can access and/or revisit these activities at any time, which strengthens their learning experience."

Staff at Lancaster University have been impressed with Study Group’s approach to online learning provision during the pandemic.

As Dr Michele Luxon, Head of Overseas Programmes at Lancaster University explains:

“I have been impressed by how quickly and professionally staff at the Lancaster International Study Centre have adapted to an online, blended learning approach since the pandemic. 

"In particular, the Insendi platform, which has been used for the Academic English Studies module has been fantastic, allowing students to thrive in this virtual environment with such great interactivity with their teachers and fellow students.

"This, with the blend of synchronous classes, has not been easy given different time zones, but the teachers have risen to the challenges to ensure that the students have had the best possible opportunities during these difficult times.”

An expert assessment of virtual international education 

Dr David LeFevre, Director of the EdTech Lab at Imperial College and founder of Study Group specialist online company Insendi, shares his perspective on how COVID-19 will shape the future of education:

“Almost every aspect of our lives and communities depends as never before on the ability to connect online. Remote teaching and learning, virtual classrooms, online support, and assessment are creating a new normal. Yet within disruption lies opportunity, however challenging to see at the time.  The innovation, infrastructure and knowledge gained from this crisis will change the way we teach and how we imagine new models of international education.

“Our experience has always been that success in online learning means putting teaching first and technology second. Technology is critical, of course, but its role should be to enable rather than determine outcomes.”

Listening to the student voice

The proof of the efforts of teachers though lies with students. So, what were their views? 

Crucially, online education still allowed students to master their subjects, English language expertise and study skills to a standard that will enable them to progress onto their degrees at Lancaster University.

“The content was explained in a clear way and definitely gave me a better foundation on the module,” commented one student, while another said, “All the tutors were really good at reaching the students and explaining the materials of the course. After every class, I felt like I understood everything and I was satisfied. It helped prepare to participate in group discussions academically.”

Yet for all the talk about technology, some things do not change. The aspect of online learning students most valued was the care of their teachers who had worked so hard to understand new channels and whose commitment to students and their learning underpinned their success. 

As one Lancaster student observed, being online was not allowed to be a barrier to an encouraging learning environment: “The support given by the tutors is amazing, and the atmosphere that was created motivated me to study harder.”  Other students praised the dedication of their teachers, describing tutors as “willing to give us guidance for our assessments and explain the materials and concepts clearly” and “very supportive.” 

But learning with and from other students was also key, and many learners noted how important it was to each of them that their online studies and engagement also included a strong sense of community and mutual support between international students, regardless of where they were in the world. “The class vibe is relaxing, I can easily engage in the class” said one student, while another praised “much interaction between the tutor and students during the lesson."

Beyond COVID-19, students and teachers have learned a lot about how to connect and learn well online, how to build supportive communities and to achieve aims despite challenges. While everyone is looking forward to being together in person again, some of the positive lessons of online education mean students and teachers want to keep on innovating with digital technologies supporting even more successful learning.

Blog archive

See all articles

Discover more about Study Group

This site uses cookies. In order to continually improve this site, we remember and store information about how you use it. Find out more.
Accept and close