This article is a discussion with our CEO and head engineering tutor Mike Lopez. In the first section, Mike tells us about his background and his journey to establishing UniCourse. He tells us about his qualifications and experience in tutoring and creating online learning materials.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to establishing UniCourse as a company.
I was born in Liverpool to Spanish parents. I was an electronics design engineer for 25 years, then decided to go into teaching, focusing my energy on HNC and HND engineering topics at colleges throughout the north-west of England. After ten years of teaching, I realised that the financial crash of 2008 was having a huge influence on the ability of employers to be able to allow employees to attend day-release HNC/D college courses.
Employers still needed to up-skill their employees, and so it became obvious to me that there was an opportunity to establish a distance learning company to service those needs. Eventually, the UniCourse project came into existence.
Can you tell me some details about your education and experience with teaching this subject matter?
At 16 years of age, in 1975, I went to college full-time to learn electrical and electronic engineering. I journeyed through level 4 (HNC), level 5 (HND), and then on to a full-time bachelor’s degree, then a full-time master’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering. At that point, my skills were in high demand, so I became a design engineer, latterly designing Bluetooth circuitry before the general public had even heard of Bluetooth. I have always felt a passion within the educational environment, so I enrolled on a two-year part-time teaching course whilst undertaking my design job. Once I gained my teaching qualification, I immediately embarked upon my teaching career. I now have 15+ years of teaching experience.
What are your thoughts on the emergence of online distance learning as a viable alternative method of study?
New technology has always been the driving force to increase the appeal of distance learning. Courses are now more dynamic and interactive, including video tutorials and mobile learning platforms for busy working people.
“Students experience 7-day support with us, from 8am to 7.30pm. This is absolutely essential for our students, as a large majority of them work full time. They also benefit from the widest choice of optional modules, allowing them to shape their qualification to maximum benefit.”
Mike now tells us how UniCourse differs from other online learning companies and explains why he believes online distance learning is the educational tool everyone can benefit from.
Over the last 6 years, UniCourse has become one of the most successful online learning companies for engineers. How is it different to other distance learning companies?
I believe the quality of student support and extensive module choice are our unique selling points. Our tutors use modules to organise materials into topics. They are ordered sequentially and contain all course materials and learning activities for that particular topic or unit. We have devoted an entire staff experienced in creating learning materials to carefully select and develop the best resources out there, so we can stand out from the crowd.
What should a learner expect from you as a tutor?
Extensive industrial experience, many years of teaching experience, plus fast marking and developmental feedback, either written or oral. A nice phone manner when communicating with colleagues and students is also one of my priorities. I am also very particular in the way I give feedback on students’ assignments. When we say something is “good”, we often assume that people will know exactly what about it was good. This is not always the case – especially when the feedback is in written form. I always give detailed and specific feedback, to remove any ambiguity. Rather than “good work”, I say “The way you did X was really good.” Praising effort instead of intelligence increases intrinsic motivation and provides a template for students to follow next time.
What sets UniCourse tutors apart from others?
Fast marking and commitment to excellence. We select our tutors very carefully so we can provide the best service to our learners. We focus on learner satisfaction and always make sure we address their concerns. We have a good relationship with our tutor team, which I am part of myself. In my opinion, that leads to our tutors having excellent relationships with our students and providing them with all the necessary materials so our students can complete the course successfully. The big difference is that we do not choose who to put first. We take care of our tutors and our students which contributes to overall satisfaction.
What would you say is the best way as a tutor to deliver the information in a way that people can understand?
People have a range of learning styles. It is therefore important for us to ensure that topics are conveyed effectively in written, visual and spoken formats. You will also encounter differences among the circumstances of our students. For example, some are well equipped tech-wise, with a good computer and fast, reliable internet access, others need maths to be carefully explained to them as they may be a bit rusty after 30 years without doing it!
What advice would you give to a prospective student looking to start a course with you?
Take a good look through all the unit specifications and sample workbooks, then send in an information request and request a call, and one of the team will talk you through the details of the course. After signing up, listen carefully to the course tutor. Advice and guidance are critical at the early stages of a programme in order to ensure successful navigation through the modules.
“When it comes to distance learning, there is no set schedule a learner must abide by. This is because students have a 5-year registration period on our HNC/D courses. If something happens and you are not able to study for a while, such as work becoming very busy or a personal issue, you needn’t worry, just log back in when you are ready to.”
What would you say about the effectiveness of distance learning, compared to classroom contact lessons?
Both have their advantages, but distance learning students benefit from video lessons which can be played over until understanding is achieved. Also, we provide early evening and weekend support, which does not occur with contact learning. Distance learning also allows us to make use of cutting-edge technology to make quality and reusable teaching materials. We use session recording to create permanent and shareable videos. We use Zoom for audio and video calls. It gives students access to much more specialist tutors from further afield. This is especially important when it comes to engineering. In my opinion, students do not suffer from a lack of physical contact. I can record videos at the click of a button, save them to the cloud as well as create PDFs by importing content in real-time from various sources using a snap-shot tool among other things.
What are some of your favourite strategies for teaching materials to students?
Interactive quizzes and video tutorials are, in my opinion, the most highly effective strategies for accelerated learning. The ability to be able to record online videos gives distance learning the technological edge over face-to-face tuition. Learning should not stop at the end of the class. Using our online resources, students can save and revisit their work together directly from their computer at home. We have developed an entire set of revision resources that students can access any time to help them with their assignments. We constantly take feedback from our students. We utilise this to adjust our materials to help future students – adding extra value to our service – or else cutting down on future preparation time for the students.
How can you determine if a student understands the material or needs additional instruction?
That is usually ascertained over a phone call or Zoom session. We like to utilise different technologies to make sure our students are successful.
What would you say to a learner who wanted to give up, believing they are not capable of acquiring an engineering qualification?
In those instances, I would have a long one-to-one with the student and arrange additional dedicated instruction. When I started UniCourse, I always had in mind that one of our main aims as a distance learning company, would be to provide support. When I talk to students, I always emphasise that I am available, as well as all our tutors and support staff to help with any questions.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Primarily, I am a good listener. Delegation helps me to find more time to be an effective teacher.
In the final part of the interview, Mike gives us an insight into what he does in his day to day life. He also tells us about the opportunities and challenges moving forward for UniCourse. Finally, he tells us what keeps him going.
Can you tell us about challenges and opportunities ahead? What lies ahead for UniCourse?
I think our main challenge is to manage growth effectively. We now have over a thousand students, and wish to grow intelligently, whilst supporting their programmes without compromising quality. Our opportunities are enhanced by technological developments. As a company, we are in the process of rapidly expanding our portfolio of courses and programmes. In the next ten to fifteen years I see distance learning programmes growing exponentially. Opportunities are not only there for programme providers, but, more importantly, I believe, for learners to change their lives via flexible online education.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Cooking with basic ingredients and creating masterpiece meals is always a pleasure, usually with way too much garlic. When I am too tired to sit by the keyboard, I enjoy football and darts on tv, although right now I have to settle for replays of old football matches on TV!
If you could be tutored by anyone dead or alive, who would it be?
A debate over a nice supper with Bill Gates would be interesting. I would be interested to know whether he preferred iPhone or Android, or perhaps a Microsoft phone. Pythagoras and Gates would make an interesting triangular discussion.
What motivates you to keep going and develop the company further, in the current situation?
Good question. Whatever the situation, people need to progress and learn, including myself and my staff. Getting out of bed each morning to educate is a privilege. To change peoples’ lives for the better is so satisfying.
Mike has been our head electrical & electronic engineering tutor since starting the company in 2014 and remains an instrumental part of this department. If you would like to request a telephone call with Mike before signing up on one of our courses, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to do so.
"You are provided with all the resources you need and the support is fantastic. I would recommend Unicourse to anyone looking for distance learning at their own pace."
"I have enjoyed my course so far with Unicourse, I have found it a lot more flexible and can fit it around my hectic lifestyle a lot easier than attending college with assignment deadlines. Any problem I have had with the course have been answered very quickly. I would recommend Unicourse to others who are busy but want to carry on with education."
"From the start of the enrolment phase, UniCourse admin team made everything simple and clear how the course would be laid out with the program ‘Moodle’ I would be using. The course is a very convenient way to study even if you are already fully employed like myself and lecturers were easily contactable and friendly. Overall I had pleasant experience with unicourse and would recommend them to anyone looking to improve on their education"
"My dream of finishing my studies has been possible only because of Unicourse, they have given me the opportunity to be flexible with my studies and hold a full time job all at the same time. I would highly recommend them for anyone looking to study and work at the same time. I have found them to be very helpful with all my queries and they are quick to help me solve my problems. This is so convenient for me I can study in my own time and in my own home no need to travel to college at a certain time. After finishing my current HNC course I hope to start HND with Unicourse they are fantastic i am very pleased with them."
"With a full time Job and 2 very young kids a normal 9-5 course was not an option. It was becoming increasingly difficult to better my career options. Finding Unicourse on the internet has really opened up my learning potential. Their professionalism, knowledge and flexibility are really first class. To sum them up in one word.... Awesome!"
"I have found Unicourse to not only be a very convenient way to study as I am a self employed full time electrician, but also the course tutor to be very helpful. Whether I require help by phone, email or a live web session he is always available. The tutor also returns marked work very quickly allowing me plenty of time to make any adjustments. I have found Unicourse to afford me the best opportunity to progress my career whilst also continuing to work full time. "
"I have really enjoyed my experience so far with Unicourse.org even obtaining a Distinction on my first module. The staff and lecturers are quick and helpful with their responses to any and all enquiries and the video conferencing platform is very helpful when discussing intricate subject matter. I would highly recommend the course to anyone wishing to broaden their horizons whilst holding down a full time job."
"Great tutors, easy to follow workbooks, great support, would highly recommend."
"Time and place were severe obstacles to me achieving a HND in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Thankfully, the flexible options offered by Unicourse have allowed me to undertake my HND from home with them while working full-time. They have personalised my HND, allowing me to choose from many optional units. The traditional colleges I looked up did not offer option choices at all. I have also managed to complete my HND with Unicourse in a fraction of the time that would have been necessary at other colleges. I am really pleased that I made the right choice. The support I got was fantastic."
"The flexibility of the courses and the professionalism of the staff make UniCourse a great way to improve your personal skills with a chance of a future career."
"If you want to succeed I personally suggest you apply to UniCourse. Why? After many years away from study I did my HNC. It was hard work but with superb help and guidance I obtained 8 Distinctions. This year I am doing my HND in Electrical & Electronic Engineering with UniCourse. Again, UniCourse are pulling out all the stops with high quality assignments, a one-to-one videoconferencing platform, incredible feedback and comprehensive support when needed."