Universities have latched on to the benefits of using the internet to deliver courses, says Katie Puckett. But tutors needn’t worry about being replaced by robots just yet…

Lazing around all day in your dressing gown has long been a staple of university life. Soon though, this could be a perfectly acceptable way of getting your work done. Universities and colleges are increasingly using the internet to deliver courses, which is opening up a world of possibilities for their students.

At the most basic level, virtual learning environments allow you to log on remotely to find out when and where your lectures are or when your coursework is due, but they can also give you links to further reading or even videos of lectures you might have missed, and provide an online discussion forum between fellow students and tutors.

There are obvious benefits to all this, particularly for people fitting their studies around a full-time job, or who have a disability that might prevent them from attending classes or working at the same pace as their peers. But like any technology, there are possible downsides and if you’re going to get the most out of it, you’ll need to learn some new study skills.

Universities with a virtual learning network have found there are benefits to even the simplest applications. At Glasgow Caledonian University, the School of the Built and Natural Environment uses a system called Blackboard to provide a range of online resources.

Dr Irene Bonnar, head of learning, teaching and quality, says it cuts admin for a start. “If there’s a change to the timetable, you can just make an announcement and it’s emailed to all the users. It’s a very effective means of communication, so you don’t need to rely on noticeboards or get the admin staff to dig out everyone’s email addresses. It’s particularly useful for part-time students who may only be coming to campus on certain days.”

There’s also a facility for discussion boards, where students can post questions directly to tutors – something tutors find useful too. “As a tutor, you’re besieged by students asking the same questions,” explains Bonnar. “This is a very good way of giving the same information to everyone.”

Of course, putting resources online gives students more flexibility in structuring their studies. Messages can be picked up any time from anywhere. If you can’t make it to a lecture because of work commitments or you just fancy a duvet day, you can catch up on what you’ve missed online. Where there might have been, say, one copy of a particular report in the library on a 24-hour loan, the virtual learning environment can make an electronic copy available to everyone at the click of a mouse.

Bonnar says this is particularly helpful for courses with a large legal or contractual content, or the RICS APC where there’s a lot of administrative information about different pathways. “It’s a useful way of getting students to engage with the wider world. One of the downsides is that they often have a natural reluctance to go and investigate things themselves, but if you put their resources at their fingertips, it’s very helpful.”

But this accessibility does have a downside. The internet does indeed give students access to masses of potentially relevant information – but how do you make sure you’re looking at the right thing?

There’s a core of us who really see this as the future. These things are not necessary at the moment but in a few years’ time, students will expect it.

Alan Dunn

Nottingham Trent University is spending up to £50,000 on developing an online library to counter exactly this problem, says head of construction management Pete Ramsay-Dawber. “Rather than sending students in the vague direction of the internet where they may get sidetracked by inaccurate information, the online library brings everything they need together. It’s like walking into the library and having someone tell you ‘that shelf over there has all the books and videos you need to use’, instead of just sending them into the library and saying it’s in there somewhere.”

Again, it’s something that will be of particular value to part-time or distance learning students. “If you’re at university, you can talk to your tutor and they will guide you so you don’t get lost in the ether. People working in industry have no boundaries; they might go off and get inundated. You can still go and explore but at least there’s boundaries to it.”

Ramsay-Dawber has noticed that the internet is already changing how courses are taught. “We’re now using online for the basics, so lectures are more about debate and analysis. It’s like the olden days when you’d say ‘go away and read a couple of Shakespeare plays and we’ll discuss them next lesson’ rather than sitting and reading them in the lesson.”

Such flexibility also makes it possible to learn without ever going on campus, and from very great distances. London South Bank University is pioneering an MSc in Building Services Engineering based entirely on distance learning. Alan Dunn, senior lecturer in the engineering systems department, says it was a response to demand from small companies who couldn’t afford to release staff to study part-time. Four students began the course last September on the understanding they were part of the debugging process, and another 16 started in February from as far afield as Australia, Nigeria and Greece.

Students access all the information they need by logging on to the course website and communicate with their tutors via email or Skype, which allows them to see each other and talk in real time over the internet. It’s unfamiliar territory for everyone. “At every stage we’ve had to invent new rules and regulations,” says Dunn. “The admissions process, for example, was based on students physically presenting themselves and their ID so we had to work round that. There are staff training issues, too. Instead of being able to get a class together, you have to speak to people individually over the internet.”

Distance learning is ideal for people working abroad but also for students in the UK who can choose any university they fancy, not just the one that’s nearest.

Dunn says they are now looking at delivering self-assessment tests via mobile devices and podcasting lectures. “There’s a core of us in the department who really see this as the future. These things are not necessary at the moment but in a few years’ time I can see students expecting it.”

But for all his internet zeal, Dunn says he would always recommend students take the part-time course. Distance learning is not just lonely, it also lacks opportunities for live, spontaneous discussions that increase your understanding.

To make sure the MSc students enjoy the social side of learning as much as possible, London South Bank University uses a virtual learning environment called Moodle. “It’s designed for social learning. The idea is that the student gets many different ways to interact with each other and they can help and support each other. That’s what we hope to encourage. As older students show younger ones the subject, they will engage with it better themselves.”

If you’re talking about JCT contracts, the internet can be a bit dry. We have to work out how to split it into manageable chunks to get people interested.

Alex von der Heyde

Distance learning also means adapting your study habits. Full and part-time building services students have to file a piece of coursework after six months, but on the distance learning course, this can be submitted at any point between six and 18 months in.

“It’s good if they hit a period when they’re busy at work or they get posted overseas. But there’s a temptation to let things drift. We encourage them to produce a Gantt chart of intended study. It’s about setting your own deadlines and being strict with yourself.”

Students are encouraged to stick to their own deadlines through the pastoral tutoring they receive over the phone, Skype and through discussion forums.

Skype is also good for verifying that students have submitted their own work – an obvious pitfall of internet-only courses. Glasgow Caledonian also marks students on the contributions they make to discussion boards so everyone has to interact.

University staff too must adapt to new ways of working. Just as it’s easy for students to slack off when there’s no formal timetable, it’s the same for staff, who must motivate themselves to check emails and discussion boards – often an unfamiliar habit. Dunn says that when the new intake starts in September, it will probably hire an administrator just to make sure emails are answered promptly and that no one is forgotten.

Not everyone believes the internet is the future for learning though. Alex von der Heyde, company secretary at the Construction Study Centre, says it has looked at developing IT-based teaching, such as webinars and virtual conferencing but found they just don’t allow students to engage as well as classroom-based courses. “If you’re talking about details of JCT contracts, it can be a bit dry,” he says. “There’s going to be a way of doing these things, but we have to work out how to split it into manageable chunks to get people interested.”

On a one-day training course, you can tackle a whole issue in one go and resolve any uncertainty along the way, but even the most dedicated student is unlikely to spend such a sustained period staring at a screen or reading alone to the same effect.

“There’s also group interaction where delegates can learn from each other’s experiences, and their questions can be dealt with on the day usually to the benefit of the group as a whole,” argues von der Heyde.

There’s no doubt learning is still a very personal experience, no matter how it’s delivered. Even the most technophile course leaders realise they have to find some way to replicate the interaction between teacher and student, and the internet is unlikely to completely replace classroom learning any time soon. But it can add a lot to the experience of learning – and being able to watch lectures at home in your dressing gown will be a welcome development for students everywhere.

Study tips: how to survive virtual learning

Set yourself a schedule – and stick to it
Virtual learning is often much more flexible, with no fixed deadlines or timetable. But you still have to get the work done. Set your own goals and milestones for your studies, perhaps with a chart of what you hope to achieve by when, and try and keep to it as far as possible. If you’re sitting down to work in the evening, work out a specific goal for that session so that you don’t end up aimlessly surfing the internet until the small hours.

Don’t be a stranger
Learning on your own on the internet can be a lonely business. And it’s not just the social side you could miss out on – talking to other people on the course is a good source of support in times of stress and also of extending your own understanding of a topic. If you don’t see your tutor or fellow students in the normal course of your studies, make use of other ways of engaging with them. Post questions or answers on discussion boards, for example, or install Skype on your computer for free internet video calling.

Turn the tables on your tutor
Internet learning is a brave new world for university staff as well as students. Before you sign up for a course, it’s worth checking out how much experience your teachers have in this area – and perhaps more importantly, how enthusiastic they are. You don’t want to end up floundering around with no guidance or support so make sure your tutor will be checking their emails and updating discussion boards regularly.