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Collaborate to compete

February 14, 2011

Collaborate to compete: Seizing the opportunity of online learning for UK higher education
Report to HEFCE by the Online Learning Task Force

HEFCE established the Task Force in mid-2009, with the  remit of addressing  “how UK higher education (HE) might maintain and extend its position as a world leader in online learning. It was also invited to consider international opportunities, ways to encourage flexibility in UK provision, online pedagogy, how  to support institutions to take full advantage of rapidly developing technology and rich sources of content, and to ensure quality provision to meet rapidly changing student demands”.

This report,  published in late January 2011, presents the conclusions reached, notably that

“online learning – however blended with on- or off-campus interactions, whether delivered in the UK or overseas – provides real opportunity for UK  institutions to develop responsive, engaging and interactive provision which, if offered at scale, can deliver quality and cost-effectiveness and meet student demands for flexible learning”.

These conclusions have become even more pertinent in the present financial climate , and with the proposed changes in HE funding.

Collaboration is seen as key to success – collaboration between HE institutions, between  universities and the private  sector, and within institutions, between academics and learning technologists. Collaboration could include the cooperative development and sharing of learning resources, or at an administrative level – for instance Bloomsbury Learning Environment (BLE), where several institutions share a single VLE, although distinctly branded for the learners at each partner institution.

The report foresees a growth in online learning, including courses delivered fully online (online  distance learning), but also as a component of blended programmes with a more traditional attendance pattern. It cites the case of BPP – now BPP University College, the UK’s first private for-profit University – where the same online materials are available to all students, regardless of whether they are learning at a distance or attending lectures on campus.

Summary of recommendations

What follows is a slightly précis-ed and paraphrased version of the report’s recommendations…

1  Technology needs to enhance student choice and meet or exceed learners’ expectations

  • Online programmes need to be of a comparable quality and standard to other programmes.
  • Students need greater support to ensure their study and academic literacy skills are fit for the digital age.
  • Information about online programmes is lacking and often difficult to find, both for distance courses and for the online learning elements in blended programmes. This has a significant impact on student choice, domestically and internationally.

2 Investment is needed to facilitate the development and building of consortia to achieve scale and brand in online learning

  • Quality online learning is not a cheap option.
  • Through collaboration, institutions can achieve significant economies of scale and more rapid development and adoption of technologies, for example in the development of learning resources or in sharing the risk of developing new forms of provision.
  • The report calls for collaboration between HE institutions, but also across the public-private sector divide. It also calls for government funding to promote effective collaboration.

3 More and better market intelligence about international demand and competition is required

  • The sector needs to work together to collect and share market intelligence and, in particular, make better use of what  is already produced… . Providers around the world are embracing, developing and embedding online learning, and may well attract students away from UK institutions, so there is clearly an imperative to improve the situation. Institutions in the UK may well be competing with each other for students, but they all share a responsibility for promoting UK HE as high quality, responsive and globally competitive.

4 Institutions need to take a strategic approach to realign structures and processes in order to embed online learning

  • The need to address student expectations and remain competitive should help drive developments in online learning and ensure its development and use are aligned with institutional mission. Institutions and organisations need to invest in learning, and leadership and vision at the highest level is required to bring a step-change. .. Online learning is a strategic  issue, not a simple, bolt-on option. Institutions need to ensure staff understand the range of challenges and opportunities provided by online learning, and ensure what they do is cost-effective and high quality. A strategic approach across the whole institution will enable staff to overcome barriers to adoption.

5 Training and development should be realigned to enable the academic community to play a leading role in online learning

  • Staff may be willing to engage with technology to meet the expectations of students, or require encouragement and training to so do, but in both cases they need support to be effective. There needs to be a stronger understanding of the potential of web-enabled learning and the use of social media, greater prioritisation of teaching partnerships between technologists, learning support specialists and academics, and an end to the ‘not invented here’ syndrome.
  • Mixed teams working together on the pedagogic and technological elements of online learning enable institutions to offer innovative, up-to–date, high-quality provision.
  • Good practice must also be shared.

6 Investment is needed for the development and exploitation of open educational resources to enhance efficiency and quality

  • There is no point duplicating effort to create content that is already available and has been proven to work.
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