Understanding Learner Needs - David Barnett

Managing Director of Pearson


The following is an extract from David Barnett's presentation at the Global MindSet conference.

We have a very clear picture of both the burning platform higher education stands upon, a clarion call for change, but also the potential for online and blended learning to fundamentally change the way learning happens, and its potential as far more central part of a university's strategy.

Universities and other providers need to radically change the way they think about their students, in every way. How they attract them, interact with them during the recruitment and enrollment process, and then, once enrolled, how to support them throughout their learning journey.

In Australia we have been building a university partnerships business over the past few years. A flexible fully online program, offering the same content and qualification, but in a 6 teaching period model.

We're proud to be partnering now with Monash and Griffith helping them develop and grow new online learning operations. It is through these partnerships we are able to attract high volumes of students from within and outside the traditional university catchment area.



Understanding Learner Needs

When it comes to online learning, we have learned that most students don't have clearly defined expectations. They can't anticipate how the experience will look and feel, and they don’t know if it will work for them.

Rather than describing a generic experience, we encourage students to define what it needs to be for them. We do this by taking a personalised approach to understanding what each individual needs and wants to achieve through their learning experience. Each student will have a dedicated advisor who gets to know them very personally. We want to understand their goals, their drivers, their challenges, their fears.

Appreciating each student as a unique individual, and treating them as such helps us to build relationships based on trust and that enables us to stay connected with them throughout their online learning journey.

Once we have a high trust relationship, we find that students invite us to share in many of their life experiences, not all of them study related. They rely on us to hear the details of their challenging circumstances, to listen and support them when they don’t have anyone else to talk to and to remind them why they took on such a feat when they already have so many other commitments.


Supporting students to make online learning a reality

While access to online learning presents a unique opportunity to provide these students with a way to fit study around their existing commitments, the reality of what that actually looks like and the sacrifices required are sometimes not fully realised.

In anticipating these challenges, our student support teams work with the students to set clear expectations and, using a study time planner tool up front, we help students to understand what 15-20 hours a week study actually looks like in their own personal​ life. For example, do they drive or catch public transport to work, do they have children, sport or work commitments they need to plan around. We encourage students to plan ahead, utilise their time in the best way possible and be realistic about what will be required to succeed.

Having said that, we also understand unexpected life events and challenges are going to arise. Our team is on hand to support students through these times. This may include supporting the student through the deferment process and when the time is right, helping them to return to their studies through the use of various engagement activities such as 'welcome back' and 'IT support' webinars, as well as one on one calls with their dedicated advisor. Depending on the student's personal graduation target, we will sometimes encourage the student to return to study sooner to help them move closer to achieving their goals.

Just prior to the commencement of each teaching period, we connect the students with their new instructor for that particular unit, providing another opportunity for instructors and support advisors to build a relationship and set expectations with their students.



Creating a sense of Community

Our research has shown that community and a sense of connection are still important to most online students. Working through identified challenges and continuously improving the way in which we interact and engage with students has meant the development of a supportive community in which students can feel a sense of belonging and contribution. We have seen and encourage informal online and offline engagements. We have heard of students logging in to scheduled webinars earlier than they needed to in order to connect with their fellow students.

This is a great example of students using the tools and systems that have been set up to to develop a community, where students often have the ability to create their own support networks, absent of university or Pearson involvement.

We are constantly looking at ways to improve and increase opportunities for connection amongst students and instructors.

Despite having hundreds of active students across our programmes, we maintain a personal relationship with students, each having a dedicated support team member.

Embracing a truly learner centric model is already paying off, and we believe it will only improve based on the encouraging trends we're seeing.

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