I was casting around for a blog topic when the report ‘Collaborate to compete’ popped up on the Open University intranet pages. The report was published yesterday (27 January 2011) by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The report was written by an Online Learning Task Force which included OU Vice-Chancellor Martin Bean and other academics, as well as experts from Microsoft, Apple and Pearson.

The report and a summary version can found on the HEFCE website here. I thought that it might be interesting to have a look at the report a bit more closely to see what implications it might have for the work of the OU’s Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum (CIC).

The first paragraph of the introduction shows the scope of the report. This includes:
• How UK higher education might maintain and extend its position as a world leader in online learning
• What are the international opportunities?
• How flexibility in UK provision can be encouraged?
• Online pedagogy
• What support is needed so that institutions can respond to rapidly developing technology and rich sources of content
• How to ensure that quality provision meets rapidly changing student demands

The introduction also recognises the impacts of severe constraints on public spending and the shift towards a more de-regulated market approach to higher education.

Collaborate to compete comes up with 6 recommendations:

1. Technology needs to enhance student choice and meet or exceed learners’ expectations
2. Investment is needed to facilitate the development and building of consortia to achieve scale and brand in online learning
3. More and better market intelligence about international demand and competition is required
4. Institutions need to take a strategic approach to realign structure and processes in order to embed online learning
5. Teaching and development should be realigned to enable the academic community to play a leading role in online learning
6. Investment is needed for the development and exploitation of open educational resources to enhance efficiency and quality.

Although there are these 6 recommendations the report is actually divided into three main sections:

  • Student diversity, demand and expectations
  • UK competitiveness
  • Strategy, processes, culture

This week I am proposing to have a look at the first of these three.

Student diversity, demand and expectations

The discussion in this section is highly relevant to the students CIC is responsible for – those on the Open Programme and those taking Openings modules. This relevance is highlighted by the opening of this section in the report:

We placed great emphasis on understanding the needs of students to ensure online learning is high quality and encourages new and different kinds of students to engage with UK higher education.

The report commissioned research by the National Union of Students. The NUS found

  • Students prefer a choice in how they learn they do not like have limited options and prefer to have a range of learning methods
  • Students are concerned about the ICT competencies of their lecturers
  • The value of learning technology varies greatly from course to course.
  • Currently most students are self-taught in ICT
  • Students want to be seen as active partners in the development odf online learning rather than as passive recipients

The report also found that for many students online learning offered the possibility of reducing the cost of learning and enabled them to enter the jobs market earlier or to balance learning and other commitments.

However, it also found that they wanted these benefits and a high quality learning experience.

This section of the report also raises a number of other issues which strike chords in terms of CIC’s planned direction of travel. One of these is the potential that online learning has for students to interact with each other and with students from different backgrounds and countries.

Some learners who have grown used to using web and social networks will expect communication in these media. However, for other learners these media will be unfamiliar and act as a barrier to engagement, there is a balance to be struck between these two groups – but both will have higher expectations, demand and requirements relating to online learning.

Another key issue that this part of the report discusses is that of flexible provision. Online distance learning, the report suggests, should provide students with the flexibility to study at their own pace and in a location that is convenient to them. To meet these needs the report notes that institutions have to offer course and programme that are adaptable to individual student circumstances.

The final points in this section of ‘Collaborate to compete’ highlight the need for good information advice and guidance. The report finds that information about online courses is often difficult to find – they rarely show up on major search engines. To address this there is a need for institutions to be creative and innovative to attract students to online learning.

The OU gets a pat on the back here: for example, the Open University has successfully attracted students by placing small segments of content for informal learning on iTunesU

From a CIC perspective I think that this section of the report provides some useful pointers on issues that are of concern to us when we think about our students and our potential students, especially in the context of online learning.

In particular I think the call for a high quality yet flexible offering which meets the needs of very different groups of students is crucial. The other interesting aspect is the potential for international students being able to combine home country and international study as we’ll as being able to use online study to ensure that they are fully prepared for UK based study.

Next week, I will look at the section on UK Competitiveness.

Jonathan Hughes
Lecturer, CIC

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One Response to Collaborate to compete – a report by the Online Learning Task Force

  1. […] Last week my blog post introduced this report and looked at a bit more detail at the section that focused on Student Diversity, Demand and Expectations. This week I am focusing on the section UK Competitiveness. […]

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