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Perspectives: Imperial College's Dr Sarah Grant on scalable and sustainable strategies for Higher Education

Posted by Dr Sarah Grant on 01 October, 2020

I’m Dr Sarah Grant and I’m the Associate Director and Head of Operations for Imperial College Business School’s Edtech Lab. I am privileged to oversee an EdTech team within a Business School where online education is at the very heart of its strategy. 

About the ICBS EdTech team

Established by David Lefevre back in 2004, we are a dedicated team of educational designers, developers, media producers, and researchers, experienced in supporting our faculty to deliver high-quality and innovative online and blended postgraduate programmes for the School.

We are a research-led team, and are currently responsible for delivering around 200 online modules every year. This includes modules for our award-winning Global MBA programme, our MSc in Business Analytics, our blended Executive MBA programme, and our brand-new MSc in Strategic Marketing, which launched this September. In addition to this, we also deliver a number of undergraduate modules for other faculties, as well as a suite of bespoke executive offerings.

"We believe that online learning can provide more effective education, and this is reflected in very high levels of student satisfaction across all of our online programmes."

How was ICBS affected by the pandemic?

In principle, we were very well positioned as a team to respond to the pandemic. After all, our very mission is focused around conversion – how can we take a programme that’s delivered on campus and reimagine it for online audiences? But the context here is actually very different. In responding to COVID, our challenge has been to shift our attention to understanding how we can apply our knowledge of what constitutes high-quality online learning to develop a new model of learning for our on-campus students. We needed to do this quickly, efficiently, and at scale.

Initially, this challenge was confined to remote teaching – how can we deliver an enhanced model of remote learning that extends beyond Zoom? We were concerned this approach would lead to low engagement and satisfaction for our students. Since then, the challenge has evolved:

"How can we deliver high-quality teaching in a multi-modal scenario, where students and faculty are able to move seamlessly between being on-campus and remote throughout the year?"

The constraints are predominantly operational, but the question of how to deliver effective teaching within these constraints is pedagogical.

With this in mind, we have invested in upgrading the Business School lecture theatres so that students can comfortably attend the same class both in-person and remotely, and hired copilots for each classroom to ensure we are delivering a consistently high-quality and interactive experience to all of our students, wherever they are in the world.

Drawing on our experience of online pedagogy, we have adopted a broadly flipped approach to learning, through the addition of structured, supported, social, and interactive elements, so that each week, students engage and participate in different preparation exercises on our learning experience platform and with each other, in addition to attending their face-to-face classes. This has allowed us to take a drastic leap forward in how we use online pedagogy to support and enhance campus teaching, but without losing the heart of the campus experience.

To do this effectively and consistently, we created a series of templates in our platform to scaffold virtual classes within a larger learning narrative, held 1:1 consultations with all of our faculty and rolled out a weekly workshop series, including Zoom training, a self-recording workshop (how to develop high-quality video content from your laptop) and a design masterclass, which focused on online pedagogy. We also developed a self-paced online module, consisting of a series of ‘how to’ videos and guides, as well as a module showcase area where faculty can browse each other’s modules like an online shopping channel!

"Altogether, my team has successfully blended over 200 classes since campus closed in March, and I’m proud to have led an initiative like no other."

How is ICBS using technology to ensure a robust offering for students moving forward?

Where COVID has had the biggest impact for us in terms of shaping our long-term vision is in widening the scope of our work to focus more specifically on enhancing our on-campus teaching provision. This invites us to think more creatively about how to make the most of new and emerging technologies, such as our mutli-modal classrooms, 360 camera, and our hologram, which can not only bring guest speakers from around the world into our lecture theatres without having to travel, but also unites globally dispersed classrooms, by projecting to multiple locations at any one time.

However, from my experience, success in online learning means putting teaching first and technology second.

"There’s a tendency in these types of situations to focus on technological solutions, but while technology is important, its role should be to enable rather than determine outcomes."

When developing our vision for high-quality remote teaching, we therefore needed to adopt a strategy with educational best practices at its core.

Part of this is acknowledging that our campus students are different from their online counterparts (even if both are now studying from home offices). This was a very important learning curve for us. We made an assumption at the beginning of the pandemic that since our online modules were delivered by the same faculty and met the same learning outcomes and resulted in high satisfaction among our online students, that this would automatically meet the needs of our on-campus students. But this strategy failed to acknowledge the motivations and preferences of our on-campus students, which are very much centred around the classroom and the social aspects of teaching and learning. For this reason, we have not looked to replace traditional teaching with online learning, but instead focused our attention on innovation and how best to facilitate and enhance campus teaching at a distance.

This brings me to a very important point - which is to be similarly wary of conflating online learning with remote delivery. Our community has spent many years moving our brand away from the idea that online learning is a series of video lectures and webinars.

"Many universities have responded to COVID-19 by delivering classes remotely on Zoom, but high-quality online learning considers a course holistically, and not just the 20 hours spent in face-to-face classes."

It’s important that we maintain this distinction so that we can differentiate between the options open to students who choose to come and study with us.


This is a challenging time for higher education providers. Are there any positives?

COVID has presented new opportunities to explore exciting, more flexible models of learning that sees students have more influence over their learning pathways through our programmes. Over the past two years we have worked as part of a collaboration of top management schools from around the world – The Future of Management Education Alliance - FOME – united by a shared learning experience platform, provided by insendi. COVID has allowed us to deliver our mission to develop shared programmes and enhance our offering. For example, we are just about to launch our brand new online MIM Essentials Programme (MEP), which offers a fast track to a Master’s in Management in collaboration with three top European Schools, bringing the very best of what each School has to offer.

On a more personal note, the response to the pandemic has accelerated progress and as a result we have seen EdTech become more pivotal. We are privileged that our Dean has always recognised the significance of our team, but until very recently, our role has focussed almost exclusively on the development of online education. Now we are working with our entire faculty and looking to develop new models of education with a wider impact.

"This is an exciting and unprecedented time for EdTech teams worldwide, and we have a responsibility and an opportunity to have a voice in how to shape the future of education far beyond the current crisis."

 

About Sarah:

Dr Sarah Grant is the Associate Director and Head of Operations for Imperial College Business School’s EdTech Lab


Dr Sarah Grant Headshot

 

Topics: learning technology, digital transformation, online learning, higher education, edtech, digital campus, remote teaching, perspectives, Imperial College Business School, imperial college london, dr sarah grant

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