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Institute of Continuing Education (ICE)

Student working on laptop

For ICE’s Head of Technology Enhanced Learning, Cory Saarinen, 2020 turned into something of a busy year. We find out how online learning has been vital to ICE during the pandemic and how Cory and his team have helped maintain students’ learning experiences since lockdown.

“As early as January we had a sense that a transition to online was going to become fundamental to our student community,” recalls Cory. “We’d seen consistent growth since we started offering online courses, but there was a huge increase in interest when lockdown started.

More students but not bigger classes

“For the first time, we put on courses in July and August and ended up with our largest-ever intake of students for our online course portfolio. Numbers had increased around 30% in 2018-19 from the previous year, and in the last academic year, enrolments grew by 80%.”

While the Institute had run online courses through its popular virtual learning environment (VLE) since 2011, lockdown restrictions enabled people around the world to see the potential of technology to connect.

“Our demographic is uniquely global – students aged from 18 to 94 drawn from 80 plus countries study our online courses,” notes Cory. “So, in a small cohort, you get this great experience. You’re not only learning from a Cambridge expert and the material, but you’re also engaging with people who see the subject through different lenses.

“Small group teaching sessions and supervisions are part of what makes Cambridge, Cambridge, even online. We want everyone to have access to their tutor and enough time for tutors and students to engage with each other. And the feedback we’re getting has been great. People are saying that they never thought they would have enjoyed an online course and that it was a great opportunity to stay in contact with others.”

Greater flexibility for students

It wasn’t only additional online courses that Cory and his team needed to set up though; they also had to help adapt ICE’s range of award-bearing, face-to-face courses.

“We literally had to go from face-to-face teaching to online overnight – an MSt in International Relations was having a residential session the week of lockdown. At first, that meant making sure we could record lectures and allow students to participate and engage with live sessions remotely. Then over summer, we spent time with tutors, academic staff and Programme Teams refining our approach for the Michaelmas term, giving training on different software platforms and finding ways to share best practice from what we’d learned the previous term.

“We’re trying to make study as flexible as possible. That means looking at the types of materials we can pre-record for learners to work on at their convenience so that the time people spend online together is better utilised and allows for deeper discussion. 

“Location and being in the classroom will always be a big draw for people, especially when you have a beautiful home like Madingley Hall. But we’ve always had people unable to attend in person, whether that’s because they don’t live in the UK or they’re busy with work, family and everything else. Flexible learning and offering choice has broadened our learning community. I’d like to see that continue.”

Learn more

Find out more about the ICE’s range of online courses.


This article was originally published as part of the 2021 Lent - Easter edition of Inside ICE.

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