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.

This part of Collaborate to compete opens by highlighting the concern about whether the UK can maintain its competitive position “in the burgeoning international market” of international students.

The report commissioned a ‘Study of UK Online Learning’ from Technology-Assisted Learning at the University of Oxford as it found that there was “no real overview of online (distance) provision”. The Oxford research suggests that there is significant activity in the UK HE and FE sector developing and delivering ODL programmes, with many institutions keen to expand their offerings”. Apart from in the Open University most of these programmes are at postgraduate level.

To try and get a clearer understanding of the risks involved in offering online learning the Task Force behind Collaborate to compete looked at six high profile online learning ventures that had failed in recent years. They suggest that there are a number of ‘learning points’ that emerge.

These include:

  • Although institutions can learn from others’ experience, the chosen approach “must reflect their own organisational arrangements, culture and values”.
  • Institutions have to be clear about “what they hope to achieve from online learning ventures”.
  • It is important to “understand the market and what students want”.
  • The business plan has to be robust enough to include substantial initial investment, long lead in times and a slow build up of enrolments.
  • The ‘offer’ has to fit “within the existing organisational culture”.
  • “Build on existing success” or forming partnerships with organisations that can provide necessary expertise.
  • “Ensure leadership and ownership”.

The report also stresses the need to learn from international experience. A key feature that emerges here is that, with the exception of the Open University, “for-profit providers that have been the most conspicuously successful in working at scale”. This seems to be linked to the fact that is these providers that already operate on a large scale and “experience no internal conflict with an existing non-profit culture”.

The UK Competitiveness section of Collaborate to compete concludes that while online learning is not a cheap option it nevertheless “offers the prospect of significant economic benefits in future years”. It also appears necessary if the UK is not to loose out in the face of global competition. The final point of the report is that “it is vital that institutions improve their knowledge about student demand in the home and global market”. The report adds that better market intelligence is also needed to identify which aspects of online learning need targeted support”.

This section of Collaborate to compete is the basis of two recommendations:

  • Investment is needed to facilitate the development and building of consortia to achieve scale and brand in online learning.
  • More and better market intelligence about international demand and competition is required.

The section I outlined in last week’s blog (Student Diversity, Demand and Expectations) has implications for the work of the OU’s Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum. There are aspects of this section on UK competitiveness which should also inform our thinking. In particular, there is the need to ensure that the online learning that we provide is of a high standard in order to be able to compete globally. In addition, it is also important for us to know as much as we can about the needs of our students needs, especially having a clear idea of how they can best be supported as online learners. Although the Open University is held up as a beacon of sustainable practice in Collaborate to compete, the issue of forming partnerships with other providers (both for-profit and non-profit) raises intriguing issues.

Next week I will look at the third section – Strategy, processes and culture

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