A “Fabulous Meal” at the University of Derby

Priscila Zigunovas
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Derby, United Kingdom

The University of Derby is one of the top ten United Kingdom universities for teaching quality and has been engaging in online learning for over 20 years. Today, more than 3,000 students from over 100 countries study at the University of Derby Online Learning (UDOL), the institution’s thriving distance learning division that applies all the university’s quality structures to the online world.

“Our students tell us they are enjoying the meal and some describe it as fabulous. To follow the analogy through, students are enjoying a high quality, sustaining, ‘fabulous meal’ and they are taught to understand how that ‘fabulous meal’ is made,” says Sandra Stevenson-Revill, Business Systems Manager at the University of Derby.

UDOL is an important ingredient in the institution’s menu. Its seasoning, according to Stevenson-Revill, is the ability to convert all the structures and processes of the university to the online environment. In the past two decades, the institution learned to tailor course content specifically for online delivery. “That’s its strength, because UDOL is very similar to normal university teaching, whilst having the flexibility to work in the way that online students need.” In fact, 86% of Derby’s students said they were satisfied or highly satisfied with their courses.

The University of Derby. Photo: AFP Anthony Devlin.
The University of Derby. Photo: AFP Anthony Devlin.

UDOL was launched in 2011, following the increasing success of the university’s distance learning courses. It operates as part of the university’s core business. “As the world has moved online, we have moved to transition in that way. And the way that the UDOL has developed to be a wholly online provision is part of that growth. For the university, UDOL is actually just a natural continuation of us leading the way in providing students with education in a way that best suits them and works for them”, explains Stevenson-Revill. “From a student point of view, it has those touch points that online-only students need because they are not coming on-site. So, it provides a little bit extra to off-campus students, which on-campus students get by just coming on site.”

Best practice

“We had the Higher Education Review (HER) at the university last year and UDOL was highlighted as an area of good practice, which is a summary of the journey that has been taken,” says Claire Gardener, Senior Learning Technology Adviser. The HER is the process used by the Quality Assurance Agency to determine whether higher education providers in the United Kingdom meet the expectations of the sector for the setting or maintenance of academic standards, provision of learning opportunities, provision of information, and enhancement of the quality of students’ learning opportunities.

“Learning Enhancement’s Technology-Enhanced Learning team is working alongside IT Services to provide sector leading support for Blackboard Learn across the entire organization, and that’s probably best practice across the United Kingdom’s higher education sector”, says Gardener.

To Stevenson-Revill, the key element to build a quality learning experience in an online environment is enthusiasm from the academic. “The academic has to have enthusiasm, not only for the subject matter but also for teaching in the online world. That’s what gives you that special thing that turns what could be just text on the screen into something magical.”

How do you create this kind of enthusiasm? To Stevenson-Revill, “The university runs regular events throughout the year. We have an annual conference that focuses on what you can do with the learning platform within the institution. I think that helps academics see what is possible and opens their eyes to ask questions. That in itself builds enthusiasm, and it puts you on a train that once it starts going, only keeps progressing.”

“The key thing in every case with quality learning experience in the online environment is enthusiasm from the academic, not only for the subject matter, but also for teaching in the online world.”

Learn from University of Derby

• Make students more employable. “The area where we are having the key successes is to make grounds on digital practices and digital capability agendas. We are talking about how to make students more employable, teaching them those digital skills that they will need for the workplace, as well as providing opportunities for student collaboration,” says Stevenson-Revill. Gardener highlights the partnerships with local employers as something that makes a huge difference in making the content relevant. “We have collaborative partners all over the world and the academics build very strong one-to-one relationships, and of course that creates a real world experience for our learners.” According to the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey, 96% of Derby’s graduates from full-time first degree courses in the 2014/15 academic year were employed or undertaking further study six months after graduation.

• Use data to identify and evaluate successes, good practices, improvement opportunities, and return on investment. Although the use of Blackboard Analytics for Learn is still in its early days at the University of Derby, according to Stevenson-Revill, it is already essential. “From a point of view of improving our teaching and learning, tools like Blackboard Analytics really help us look at what we have and where we can make improvements.” Gardener explains that Blackboard Analytics helps mapping and understanding tool usage across all schools, and it is also important to evaluate the efficiency of investments. “We have also developed a personal tutoring dashboard that we are just about to trial,” tells Gardener.

• Boost user experience. “UDOL is an example of a very controlled way of presenting the learning materials. This provides the students with consistency of approach, which online students tell us that they prefer, and also provides them with consistent experience,” according to Stevenson-Revill. Using module templates across the university is also a great practice that helps to create consistent student experience. “I think the thing that has always been special about the university is that we go out of our way to make somebody’s learning experience the best that it can be for them,” she adds. “As a member of the staff that supports academics to do that for students, I can say that we try and do the most that we can to make a difference to them, so that they can do the best for their students. I think that is very indicative of the university’s offerings as a whole in making the best learning experience that a student can have. Be it on-campus or off-campus, they are equally loved and cared about.”


*Sandra Stevenson-Revill, Business Systems Manager

*Claire Gardener, Senior Learning Technology Adviser

*Photos by: AFP Anthony Devlin

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