This past spring, the world of traditional bricks and mortar higher education was forced to move classes online, seemingly overnight, as COVID-19 swept the globe and students were plunged into online learning.
It presented a challenge for many colleges and universities: How to provide an effective learning experience in which students would continue to feel engaged and find value in their chosen programs? The drastic shift to virtual classes has many questioning whether it can really deliver the same return on students’ investment.
But some educational providers saw no interruption in delivery and student engagement because online programming was already in their DNA.
“We have offered online courses and bootcamps for years now, as we believed it was the future of digital skills learning,” says Jennifer McCuaig, Director of Learning Experience at BrainStation, a global leader in digital skills training. “With COVID-19, entire industries have been forced to adopt new digital platforms and channels, which has simultaneously expanded and accelerated the global digital skills gap.”
McCuaig says virtual learning demands the same project work and expectations as in-person courses do. Good programs incorporate all the elements of student collaboration, real-time feedback and interaction that in-class experiences provide.
“Apart from reducing your commute time, I wouldn’t say that courses are easier online,” she says.
Rise in interest for online courses
As a result of the global shift to working and learning from home, there has been a surge in interest for online bootcamps and courses. For example, demand for BrainStation’s online bootcamps and courses increased by more than 350 per cent this year, with professionals across North America and Europe looking for job-ready digital skills.
To meet that demand, BrainStation launched over 30 new online courses and introduced online biweekly panel discussions with industry leaders, both of which it continues to offer.
“We believe that more learning around the world will be happening online, in both the short- and long-term future,” says McCuaig.
As more people turn to virtual learning, it’s important to evaluate programs carefully and ask questions about how the material is delivered and how much access you have, as a student, to resources and instructor time.
Identifying the need for digital learning
BrainStation first began developing its Online Live learning platform three years ago, and with it, the school wanted to provide a seamless extension of the in-person BrainStation learning experience. The platform was designed to allow students to attend live, engaging classes led by educators with expertise in the various fields of study.
Students collaborate on projects throughout their courses and have the opportunity to break out into separate discussions and workrooms within the platform. The delivery model encourages collaboration and communication, which, much like in-person learning, can be a key ingredient for student success.
“The goal was to combine our proven instructor-led, collaborative learning with the convenience of an online experience, to provide an engaging, effective alternative to ‘learn at your own pace’ learning models,” says McCuaig.
Once the course starts, students work directly with an industry leader and a group of like-minded professionals. This motivates students to dedicate themselves to their studies in a way that does not exist in more static learning models.
“The opportunity to gain hands-on experience and have someone working in the field review your work is something that tends to motivate students in a way that an online video just can’t,” says McCuaig.
Creating an engaging platform
As it set out to create its online learning platform, purchasing an “off-the-shelf” learning management system (LMS) was never an option for BrainStation.
“Our goal has always been to give our learners cutting-edge digital skills training, with the very best learning experience on the market. That goal has guided us every step of the way, from developing and updating course content with industry experts and leaders to the design of our campuses and virtual classrooms,” says McCuaig.
As an organization that instructs students and professionals on the latest in user experience design, when it came to developing the BrainStation LMS, considerable data analysis and UX design research was involved, including interviews with their students, alumni, educators, and industry partners.
“It was important for us to build a platform around what our educators and students needed most. What we discovered was that much of it revolved around access to training material and connectivity to each other,” says McCuaig.
The intuitive, responsive interface makes content accessible at all hours and across all devices. It also provides the capability to communicate and collaborate directly with classmates, educators, and teaching assistants.
In the full-time bootcamps, daily check-ins, in the style of a kick-off or stand-up, with teaching assistants and other students, set the tone for the day. Students also have access to the education team throughout the day, if any questions arise, and “open studio time” to collaborate with other students and educators as they would in person.
Bootcamp graduates also have the opportunity to present their final projects to hiring companies during Virtual Demo Days.
So how can you determine whether online provides the same or better outcome than in-person learning? Results speak volumes, says McCuaig.
“Over 90 per cent of graduates from BrainStation bootcamps find work within six months of graduation, and through our courses and workshops, we’ve empowered more than 100,000 professionals around the world,” she says. “Ultimately, helping students start and accelerate their careers is what’s important. As we are completely data-driven, we rely on feedback from students, educators, and industry partners to make sure our courses and bootcamps are always providing the most up-to-the-minute digital skills training.”
An added benefit of online courses and bootcamps is that the student population can be more international, with professionals from around the world taking part. Students develop a global network of professional connections and contacts, which, given the move toward online and remote work, may prove to be extremely beneficial in the future.