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Incorporating differential learning approaches in online content delivery

A graphic image of a woman sitting at a desk watching a trainer on the screen
Dr Vimal Balasubramaniam

Dr Vimal Balasubramaniam

Senior Lecturer in Finance

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the School of Economics and Finance (SEF) found a way to successfully engage with different approaches to learning via online content delivery. Dr Vimal Balasubramaniam, Lecturer in Finance, hopes that this approach could open up a more inclusive delivery of economic curricula.

Responding to a need

During the pandemic, a move to fully online teaching required standardised, on-demand materials that appealed to learners from all contexts. This presented an opportunity to learn about and respond to diverse student needs, limited by access to technology and willingness to participate in remote learning. Incorporating differential learning approaches was not about catering to convenience, but rather a necessity to reach learners amidst so much digital clutter.

In this year-long core module of around 200 students, Dr Balasubramaniam had initially restricted modes of communication to group forums on QMplus and Microsoft Teams, alongside any live conversation during recap sessions on Zoom. He found that there was very little engagement with any of these tools, and nor were students engaging with the on-demand content, based on the view counts of the videos provided to them.

The approach

Although some students preferred asking questions live on Zoom, some preferred one-one interaction, using modes that felt more 'secure'. Students preferred to reach out over email than one-on-one on Teams or other channels. Initially, rather than trying to create structures that allowed him to organise his teaching delivery, Dr Balasubramaniam engaged with the emails.

Gradually, he began to receive much-needed feedback on students' understanding of the course material. This enabled him to group students into different learning approaches (e.g. those who need more problem sets to learn; those needing one-one sessions with him or his teaching assistants (TAs); those who need graphs and pictures to learn; those who prefer to follow a textbook than academic articles) and target his live sessions accordingly.

Because learners received answers to their questions on Zoom, there was no need to respond to emails – although these were received and processed. Dr Balasubramaniam adjusted his tutorial questions to target certain types of learners; used live Zoom sessions to explain intuition using graphs, timelines and pictures; and, together with his TAs, reached out to students in need of more support to engage with their progress. With the remote setting limiting peer-peer learning, this direct contact was particularly important.

The varied backgrounds of SEF's students make it especially important to support diverse approaches to learning. At master's level, differential learning approaches are principally driven by cultural and international differences in the way a subject is approached. Even if peer-peer interactions occur, they are likely to be selective and grouped by learning preferences. Catering to diverse learning preferences is therefore important even during normal times, and so lessons learned during the pandemic will remain relevant.

Dr Vimal Balasubramaniam

Senior Lecturer in Finance

Academic profile
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