Skip to main content
The latest blog articles from
AIM Qualification and Assessment Group

Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed online teaching?

  Kate Hatherell   Conner Thornewill  
Founder / Head of Learning Marketing Officer
Interior Designers Hub AIM Qualifications and Assessment Group

Conner: Hi everyone and today we’re sitting with Kate from the Interior Designers Hub, and we're going to be talking about the benefits of how the COVID 19 pandemic has reformed online education and how Kate, as someone who already uses online education as her main basis, has either changed her perspective with COVID or if it's proven that what she was working with before already worked. So hi, Kate.

Kate: Hi Conner, nice to see you, hi everyone.

Conner: If you just want to give a bit of an introduction, and tell us a bit about yourself, what you do and how you started with the qualification and online education.

Kate: Yeah, so, I used to have a completely different career. I used to be an educator myself. I've worked in education for many years and I've taught all range of people from tiny little tots in nursey right the way up to A-level and beyond into adult education.

So, I've got a really solid education myself, but oodles of experience as well in educating other people. A number of years ago, I decided that I wanted to change my career and I was looking at doing something completely different. I'd always had a passion for interior design, and so I decided to dip my toe in the water and do my own qualification.

So, I studied online and it was the first time that I'd ever really studied online. I have to say that I struggled with it a little bit, so I'd always done quite academic subjects myself, and this was the first really creative, discipline, I suppose, that I'd really looked at studying and there were a lot of skills there, I just had never been taught before and that whole creative side of things, just wasn't something that I'd ever done. I did find it quite difficult in an online environment to be able to get the help that I needed, that, you know,  hands-on tuition.

Yeah, so I  struggled, but I  muddled through it, I got my qualification and then at the end of it, obviously I wanted to go out and set up my own interior design practice and start serving my local community and then again, I just found that actually, I was quite unprepared for doing that and that I just didn't really know what I was doing.

I gradually started taking on clients and I probably made every mistake in the book and through trial and error, I  found my feet. I learned what I was doing and I set up my own practice and I then was an interior designer. But what I also did was I was blogging about my experiences. If I went visiting something, I'd write a blog about it, you know, somewhere beautiful that I'd been, I had to be blogging about, you know, new colours and new trends that were coming out. I also, set up my own Facebook group. So, I began to grow a community of people that just loved interior design.

After quite a while people were asking my advice on a regular basis and I decided to set up a little course, to teach people how to decorate their own homes really. It was full of really useful information, including all of the stuff that I'd learned about all of the horrible mistakes that I'd made and learned from.

Um, and so I sold the course. There were a few people that were buying it, but it wasn't being sold in the numbers that I really wanted it to be. So I basically did some market research, I asked everybody, "okay guys, I've got this amazing course. Even if I say so myself, I think it's great. It's going to teach you everything that you need to know in order to decorate your home. Why are you not buying it?" And then the answers came back to me and it was overwhelmingly that people wanted a qualification. So if they were going to invest time and money in studying something, they wanted to have that certificate at the end of it, that says, "Yes, actually I am now officially qualified to do this." and it was at that point, I thought, oh, okay, this is the missing piece of the puzzle. 

So I started looking around. I actually thought at first, oh my goodness, this is just not going to be possible. But I looked around at different courses. I looked at how to become registered as a centre. Because of my, you know, experienced education background. It was massively helpful in giving me what I needed in order to be able to set up. Yeah, after a period of time, we became qualified as a registered centre with AIM and started offering the level three diploma in professional interior design skills.

What we also do is, once people have completed their qualification, we then also have a membership as well. So we teach people how to set up and grow their own interior design businesses. So the qualification fulfils that part that I had where I'd struggled to learn online. So our qualification gives people oodles and oodles of support, which was what I'd felt was lacking with my online experience. But then at the end of the qualification, we also don't then just drop people off the edge of a cliff. We then help them and support them to set up their own business. We offer all sorts of tools and resources for interior designers. So yeah, that's how it came about. It was through my own journey, my own sort of frustrations with things, my own lack of knowledge, and working through all of those things.

And that's why the Interior Designers Hub is what it is today.

Conner: Wow, that’s a nice story. It's quite nice to see you went through your entire journey, looked back, decided to make the changes that would have helped you and then used that to teach others. It’s quite a cool story.

Kate: Yeah, absolutely. I think because I was an educator, I knew that education could be different as well. I knew that there were certain things that were missing that could be put in place in order to make the online experience, much richer and much more effective for people as well.

Conner: Yeah, definitely. So, what made you pick the AIM qualification over any other qualifications that you found, what were the main benefits of it?

Kate: Sure so I did look around at a variety of qualifications and obviously there are several, awarding bodies that offer interior design qualifications.

But what appealed to me about AIM, firstly, was the structure of the course. So when you're studying to level three with a qualification like this, it's very much a vocational qualification, and what I liked about AIM's qualification was the way that it covers all of the bases that you need in order to go out and be an interior designer.

So it doesn't go into, oodles of depth in just one area whilst ignoring other areas, it covers absolutely everything. So you cover, lighting, you cover fabric, you cover, technical drawing, it covers all of the bases. Then obviously once you've done the qualification, if you wanted to go and do something more in-depth on another area, if you wanted to specialize in lighting, for example, you could go off and find, further education on that.

But at its core, it really does give you the foundation that you need, to come out, being able to sort of hit the ground running really, with all of those technical skills that you need. So that was one aspect, it was the curriculum and the way that the course was structured. 

But the other side of it as well was the support. So the fact that there is a whole team of people, that are there to help you, to mentor you, to evaluate you, which helps you to improve as well. Was a real bonus for us. So we've benefited hugely from having, a team of people that, I can just contact them at any time and just say "we're a bit unsure about this aspect of the qualification” or "we're not quite sure how to deliver this", or "what's your experience been of different ways to assess this criteria" or whatever. There's always somebody there to help out and as a new centre for us, that has been absolutely invaluable, to get us where we are today.

Conner: Yeah, it's nice to hear we do some good and we help regularly. So, you mentioned how the start of Interior Designers Hub was your experience of online learning and struggling with it in certain ways. Would you say that was caused by a disconnect between you and the tutor because of being behind a screen?

So you didn't feel that connection, not in sense of a friendship but as someone who was only at college five years ago, I had more respect for the tutor because they were there. Was it just that or what were the other reasons that you wanted to start your own digital teaching journey and what were the improvements you made through that?

Kate: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think, one of the things that I knew from my own, education experience is that you can tell somebody something, but that doesn't mean that they absorbed the information, or it doesn't mean that they absorbed the information in the way that it was intended to be absorbed.

Sometimes it requires you to deliver information in different ways. So, yes, we have a suite of video training that teaches everything that is needed in order to pass the qualification. But some people require more interactivity than that. So what we do is we put in weekly sessions so that people can have a call with their tutor and they get to know them so they can chat with them. We call them hub huddles, so they just, like all penguins huddling together. They go to their tutor for support. It's also, it's that comradery and that feeling that there are others that are on the same journey as you. So you've got your tutor there who's mentoring you through helping you with questions with your assignment.

But also having the other students studying alongside you as well, and different students are at different places in their qualifications. So they're not necessarily doing the exact same assignment as you, but they can help share ideas. You can bounce ideas off of people as well.

So I think. Yeah, definitely access to your tutor, not just in the hub huddles, but also, we have a Facebook group and the tutors are in there every day of the week, Monday to Friday as well. So you get your questions answered really quickly. But also that face-to-face contact as well. 

We also turn around assignments quite quickly as well.

So we try to return all feedback within seven days, 10 days if we're really busy. But because we know that people don't want to be waiting forever to hear whether or not they've passed an assignment. So it's that constant feedback between the people and making it a much more human experience.

One of the other things that we do, as well as our tutors sometimes give video feedback as well. So that's, much nicer in many ways than just receiving something written down, actually having somebody talking you through about what was good about your assignment or what you could've done better.

Yeah, again, it just gives that real personal touch.

Conner: Okay, cool. That sounds like it's not a one way, “I'm teaching you”, but as you said, it's the human interaction and going back and forth, being able to have the connection and conversation with people and I think the hub huddles is a great title for it, because like you said, it's people huddling together. You're all in the same boat, even if you're at different stages.

So with the hub huddles or anything like that, was there a part of the qualification that was done in-person beforehand or was it all 100% virtually? How did that change with the arrival of COVID?

Kate: Yeah. So we used to deliver the qualification 100% online and actually we've gone full circle again. So we do that again now. Not necessarily because of COVID, but just because of the way that we deliver the qualification. So when we started off, obviously we were brand new to it, we delivered everything 100% online.

But when we got to the technical drawing modules, we find that a lot of people struggled with that aspect and, teaching that skill remotely was quite difficult. So what we did was we then put together in-person workshops. So we went to various locations around the country and we've always had people turning up at these workshops and we provide all of the drawing boards and all of the drawing equipment.

And we teach people how to draw, step-by-step. So that's something that we used to do. We still run them occasionally now, but we've evolved the qualifications so that we tend to teach technical drawing by CAD now. So using SketchUp and that's much easier to deliver in an online environment.

Just because it's computer-based then it is doing technical drawing. So yes, while we do still offer technical drawing workshops, for those that still want to draw by hand. We do encourage, people now to draw by SketchUp and so the qualification is essentially delivered 100% online, but what we're really careful to do as well as to plan meet-ups.

So we'll go to some of the trade shows together, like Decker X, for example, or we might pop too the ideal home show, or we might go to a home museum. We try to make sure that there are lots of touch-points for people to get together. Obviously, during COVID, we've had to let a lot of that go.

But we still sometimes do, social meetups online so that people can get to know each other in a less formal context. Then obviously over in our membership side, we have all sorts of things going on. We run book clubs, we run hangout sessions, all sorts of things. So there are many ways that you can make that online community much more interactive.

I will say that the online world really is a place where you can foster really great relationships with people and it doesn't have to be remote, or you can actually develop really close friendships and really close relationships with people. Even though it's done through a screen, so it's just about thinking about their experiences, what their journey is and how you can make sure that they're supported right the way through.

Conner: Yeah, I 100% agree about creating friendships online. I think as someone who's a gamer, I've got plenty of friends who are online that I've never met and I think a lot of people seem to understand now through COVID, the connection through a virtual screen is still some sort of connection. That you can actually build on that as you would a friendship face-to-face.

You've actually partially answered my next question. What other kinds of issues have you run into when teaching virtually and online and how did you rectify them and work through them through your journey.

Kate: Yeah. So I think, some of the difficulties that we experienced at the beginning was about which technology to use. So delivery of the lessons has never really been a problem because, you know, there are many different ways that you can do that.

You can record videos, MP4 format. You can do live sessions on zoom or recorded sessions, Microsoft teams, whatever. But what we found was a bit trickier was actually, the storage of assignments, the communication between the student and the tutor in terms of written feedback, so that there was an audit trail of everything that happened between the tutor and the student.

And I think, that took us quite a while to really get the best software that we could have, that suited our needs. So you can get lots of platforms that allow you to deliver online learning, but the piece for us that was missing, because it's a professional qualification we needed to have, that audit trail for quality assurance purposes and it was difficult to find, what we needed in order to suit our needs. So there was quite a bit of time with, exploring different software and trying out different things, which obviously can be, hugely disruptive when you're constantly switching systems and so we had to be really careful about how we managed that. I don't think that we always did it as well as perhaps with hindsight we could have done. But definitely getting to a place where we had software that worked really well for us was a struggle, that we eventually overcame. But with hindsight, we made lots of mistakes in that journey to get to where we are today.

Conner: Yeah, I guess hindsight is 20/20 though it's like looking back and seeing, “oh, I could have done that better” but also the fact that you can sit there and say “oh, we might not have dealt with that in the best way” is even better than denying it happened. It's not as though you're saying, “no, no, nothing was wrong”.  It's working on what you've learned and growing with that.

So what feedback did you have from learners and how's that been overall for the entire qualification whilst you've been running it?

Kate: So the vast majority of people, absolutely love it and lots of people are surprised by how close-knit a community it feels in spite of it being virtual. But that is by design. It's not something that happens by chance. We've very carefully crafted it that way. As I said, through things like the meetups, through the zoom sessions that we have, the huddles.

I do lives into the group as well. Sometimes with the teaching points sometimes just to say hello. So that my face is always there, people know who I am as the head of the school. We run little challenges in the group as well, so that people can participate in learning extra skills or that they can practice the skills that they're learning throughout the qualification. So that if perhaps there was something that they haven't quite mastered, there's another opportunity for them to learn. So there's also all of that feedback, mentorship, competition in a  healthy, fun way. So I think all of those things add up for it to be, a really good experience for people.

We sometimes get people that come to us with very little tech skills at all. That can be challenging and we'll be honest if people don't know how to perhaps, use software like Microsoft PowerPoint, for example, or Microsoft word, and they're trying to create assignments or presentations that can be tricky.

But what we did a couple of years ago was we employed a learning mentor and our learning mentor, actually support students on a one-to-one basis. So if they have any tech problems, she can actually get on a one-to-one zoom call with them and spend as much time with that student as they need to help them get up to speed with their skills. And that was something that we put in place because we don't want our students struggling. We want to be able to support them. Obviously, that is a cost that we have had to absorb in the business. It's not something that is done sort of on a per-student basis. We don't charge people additionally for it, but we felt that it was really important to invest in that resource for our students so that they could be really well supported and it does work very well. We do see huge transformations in, what students are able to achieve once they're given that extra bit of coaching. She also helps people with, if they come to us with a specific learning difficulty, perhaps they have dyslexia or maybe, English is an additional language for them and perhaps they are having difficulty accessing the text.

Then our learning mentor can help with that as well. So I think, on the whole, our students really enjoy what we do and a lot of them are hugely surprised at how close-knit that community is and how you really can have that feeling of, I know who these people are, and I know that they're going to be there for us, even though it's done remotely.

Conner: Bouncing off on to my next question would be, what advice would you give to tutors and teachers who are adapting to this virtual digital teaching world, but I guess as well as that, do you think, as we've said, it seems to be a current theme that we've been going back and forth about, that connection.

So it's not just sitting in front of a screen and speaking and I know I've had several cousins and siblings during the pandemic doing online learning who just say, “oh yeah, I just sit there and listen to my teacher”. Do you think that the main point of this digital learning process is to make a student feel as involved as possible and not detached behind a screen or is there something more?

Kate: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's about, making sure that your content is engaging, and I don't necessarily think that your content has to be delivered live. In fact, most of our content is not delivered live, it's delivered as pre-recorded videos, but what that then does is it frees us up to then support that learning. So instead of lecturing at people, we have a video that delivers the content, but the personal input is the discussion, and it is the clarification of misunderstanding,. It's the probing questions, it is the challenges that, get people to put things into practice. So they've got some, um, quasi, real-world experience of whatever it is that they've just learned.

I don't think that the actual learning has to be delivered live as such, it's about the other aspects of it that really enrich that experience and really make people feel like they are, part of a community, part of a student cohort, part of the bigger picture, which is about getting them then out into the industry and doing the job that they're going to love to do.

Conner: Yeah. So as someone who taught before and has vast experience of teaching before starting this journey, would you say that the idea of traditional teaching has been flipped on its head? Would you say forever or just momentarily?

Kate: I do think that there has been a massive shift with what people have gone through with COVID.

I think for our learners, most of our learners are, later in life. So they can be anything. We have students that are in their sixties, in their seventies. We also have younger people as well. We have students right the way across the age groups, but for us predominantly, they are people who have already studied something else when they were younger, possibly already had a career.

Maybe have bought their own house, had children. They do tend to be a little bit more life experienced and later on, and that ability to just be able to say, right, I'm giving up my job and I'm going to go to college to learn something new just isn't an option for these people, so being able to access online learning that is almost entirely flexible, is amazing for them because it allows them to continue going to work so they can pay their bills.

It allows them to continue being able to, look after their children so they don't have to get childcare. I do think that definitely for adult education, that online learning is, going to be the future. Whether or not, it will be like that for children. I'm not so sure because obviously there are many, social development aspects, that children need to participate in.

I don't think that is well delivered in an online environment. So I think for child development that there needs to be human interaction, but that said that doesn't necessarily mean that the learning has to be delivered, in-person, that could be delivered online perhaps. I think it will be really interesting to see how things evolve.

I think lots and lots of people have seen a different way of living over the last couple of years where they're not having to do a commute, where they're not having to do all of the things that we've always expected that we just had to do and I think people find it will find it difficult to go back to how things used to be.

I also think wider than that as well, you know, with the emergence of the metaverse as well. I think that people, we are sort of on the cusp of a huge technological change. I think we're going to be seeing a lot more stuff, not just learning, that's going to be done in a virtual world.

I really do think that if you hate technology, you can shy away from it. But the features coming, whether we like it or not. But it is about jumping in there, getting more comfortable, with the online space.

Conner: Yeah, definitely. I mean, the metaverse is quite a scary thing at times, looking, and you see things like books, like Ready Player One and you think "Oh, that's coming. That's going to be real eventually". It's quite a strange time at the minute. You mentioned about adult learning and people being able to work around their own time to complete the qualification. I think you've touched on it but do you want to explain how the assessments are done, obviously online? Is it on a base by base basis or is it a report or how do people go about doing that?

Kate: So we have a variety of assessment methods and we also have flexible assessment methods as well. So we actually allow students to choose for themselves how they wish to be assessed. So we teach a module at a time and within that module, there can be maybe four or five assessments and those assessments might be writing an essay, but they might be creating a fabric finishes border swatches board, or it could be that they have to, draw something.

So there are a whole different, I suppose sort of library of things that they can do, and although we set the suggested assessment methods. So i.e, in order to answer this question, you know write an assignment, but actually, if they want to, they could create a PowerPoint presentation or they could have a one-to-one zoom with their tutor, or they could record themselves talking to a camera and submit their evidence that way.

So what we are trying to see is that the student is competent in that area and all thought, we will say, yes, you can answer it like this. As long as they have proven to us that they have demonstrated their competence in that area, then that's absolutely fine. So we say to students, you can come to us and demonstrate this in a different way if you want to. And as long as we can prove that you've demonstrated that, that competence, then we're happy to accept that assessment method. So we do try to be as flexible as we can be and what that helps us to do is to cater for different learning styles, but also people's different learning difficulties as well.

So if somebody has, difficulties with perhaps reading, maybe dyslexia, they don't have to, write an assignment, they can speak what they know to the camera and that's absolutely fine because they've demonstrated to us their competence, that they can do it. So, yeah, we do have a really flexible and quite broad way of assessing our students.

Conner: Yeah. Especially like I was about to ask you actually, do you find that tends to open the door a lot more for different learners? I mean, I know personally if I was given the option, instead of writing something to speak it, I wouldn't say I'd get A's in all my qualifications, but I'd have probably done a bit better, but do you think that has a large effect on the learners in terms of going, “Oh, okay I can do this and although I can't write the explanation and can explain it in some way”. Do you think that makes them feel more comfortable when they finish the qualification? Being able to know that they do have that knowledge.

Kate: I don't know if it gives them more confidence, but what I think it does is I think it allows them to engage with the learning in a way that suits them better.

So, if you're the sort of person that doesn't like dredging through, lots of books or something, for example, then instead of that they can do online research. They can, research in whatever way that works best for them and I think so rather than it being about confidence, I think it is about almost falling in love with your course and wanting to absorb yourself in it because you just love it.

We get so many people saying that to us, you know, “oh my God, I just love this course”. Because you can access it in the way that works best for you and if you're somebody who's very arty and creative, you can go and explore things in an arty and creative way. Whereas if you’re more academic, you can go and explore it in a more bookish way.

Either of those things is absolutely fine, as long as you're demonstrating that you understand this subject and that you've got competency in this area, then we're absolutely happy to take that. So I think it helps people to develop a passion for what they're doing. 

I know I've studied things in the past where the learning itself has actually turned me off of the subject and we hope that what we do does the complete opposite that it allows people to engage on their terms. Within the framework that obviously we have to deliver.

Conner: That's really nice to know that someone is wanting to make sure that people continue to enjoy their studies. The idea that if you start to learn something, you don't just want to learn about it. You want to actually develop a passion for it. I know there have been times where I've studied something and as you said, you say halfway through thought “I don't like this anymore”. As though I've been pushed to the edge and just fell off and then you're dragged through a qualification just to finish it because you have to.

So, my final question would be what advice would you give to teachers or to anyone considering online teaching?

Kate: So I think there are two things that you really need to get, right. One of them is tech. Definitely, you need to have tech that is fairly robust and reliable. You're never going to find one tech solution that does everything and you're never going to find tech solutions that do everything perfectly all of the time. So you will always get websites that crash and you will always get, video calls that don't work very well and all sorts of things like that. It is part and parcel of it. But on the whole, you want to make sure that you've got reliable systems that are, hack-proof and that everything is secure and that really works for your needs as well.

That can take some time to put together, but it is totally possible to do it. So I think the tech is definitely one side of it. But the other side is. It's hugely about relationships and it's about thinking through that student experience and making sure that, you know, you can make it as engaging as possible.

It's about how can we make our content more exciting, but more importantly than that, it's about how do we then continue that engagement throughout. The conversations through the support and making sure that you are replicating what people would have in a classroom, the best bits of what you would have in a classroom in the online space.

So if you were in a classroom and you tried to do your homework the night before, and you couldn't do it, you'd be able to go into the classroom the next day and say, “oh miss, can you help me out with this? It just didn't quite get it” and for you to be able to have that conversation. That's the sort of thing that we put in place at our school, so that people can have that interaction with their tutor and that they're not waiting for ages for it as well, because they just want to explain in a different way or they just want somebody to answer a question that they didn't quite get. So I think those are the two main things that I would suggest is to get your tech right. But also to get those relationships and the support for the relationships in places.

Conner: Awesome. I would say they're two fairly key points, but also probably things that some people don't think about when they're starting the online journey.

Definitely, listening to someone who has already done online teaching and is now established in the field, it's probably something that many people can take from and learn from. So I think that's everything. Thank you very much for your time. It's been lovely speaking to you. I've learnt a ton to be fair, especially for someone who's not really done a lot of online learning.

It's made me think about different ways that we can assist other centres on this journey. Well, thanks very much for your time, Kate.

Kate: Thank you, Conner, it’s been really great, thanks for having me.


  Interior Designers Hub
+44 (0)203 488 4181


< back