Collaborate to compete

Over the last two weeks I have been looking at Collaborate to Compete, a report to HEFCE by the Online Learning Task Force which came out last month (January 2011). The report looks at the issues that online learning poses for UK higher education as a whole but it is also of particular interest to those of us who work at the Open University’s Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum. There is much of interest in the section which is the focus of my blog this week, Strategy, processes and culture.

This part of Collaborate to compete opens by explaining that this section is really about “the institutional challenges and barriers to meeting rapidly changing demands from students for increased and flexible online learning” and by re-stating previous HEFCE policy that it is up to higher education institutions to lead the response to such challenges. It also repeats the reminder, found in earlier sections of the report, that “standing still is not an option if the UK HE sector is to maintain its quality and competitiveness, and meet the future expectations of students.”

The next three sub-sections of Strategy, processes and culture look at three key perspectives, the institutional perspective, the staff perspective and the student perspective.

The institutional perspective outlines two contrasting models of online provision. In UK HE institutions mixed teams which combine “academic and subject expertise, with learning technologists, pedagogic experts, and content specialists (e.g. librarians) working closely together” are seen by the report as “a key contribution to success”. This contrasts with “successful for-profit models” which have used “freelance tutors focusing on facilitation, teaching and assessment, with no expectation of engaging in research activity.” The report points out that in post-92 institutions, where hourly quotas are assigned to teaching time, the development of online learning may be constrained by how to ‘count’ online activity as teaching contact time. It goes on to point out that if these questions can be resolved it becomes possible to “enhance reputations and access to resources (e.g. an institutional repository for all publications by university academics)” as well as making it possible to create an e-environment which means that “using learning technology very quickly becomes an integral part of everyone’s experience.”

The discussion of the institutional perspective concludes with a comment that meeting these challenges “depends on good leadership and appropriate support”.

The next part of Strategy, processes and culture considers the staff perspective. This highlights the need for “ongoing professional development” to ensure that staff are “sufficiently aware of technology and deliver programmes that meet ICT needs and expectations”.

The student perspective highlights the concern expressed in an NUS report to HEFCE in 2010 that online learning may mean a “lack of personal contact with their tutors and fellow students.” The report responds to this concern by underlining the role of universities in enabling students “to enter and learn collaboratively online with appropriate pedagogies, training and availability of technologies.”

The next sub-section of Strategy, processes and culture picks up on the issues of developing high-quality materials, content and tools for online learning. This part of the report notes that there are “many sources” of these and that “an interesting and significant international trend” has been the development and adoption of open educational resources and user-generated content”, adding that there is “an increasing volume of openly available resources for education being made available for re-use”.

Having introduced the idea of open educational resources (OERs) the report outlines what they can offer to both students and HE institutions. For students, OERs offer “access to a broader range of content, ranging from lecture notes and audio podcasts to interactive learning materials”. OERs are also seen as “a catalyst for change and exemplars for good teaching practice and collaboration at scale”. For HE institutions, these resources can be a good way “to offer greater choice to students by embedding high-quality shared expertise in their courses.” The report also notes that one way to use OERs is as a “free ‘taster’ for content through platforms such as iTunes U, with the prospect of good conversion rates as individuals subsequently sign up for accredited degree courses.”

This section also points out that the materials, content and tools that are used for online learning will not be accepted by students if they come to be seen as “a poor substitute for other forms of provision”. Rather, online learning has to be seen to meet students’ needs to be able to “study anywhere, and at any time “ and “alongside other commitments.” In addition, developments in online learning have to respond to the ways in which “contexts of learning are moving out of traditional spaces into a more mobile world”. In a resonant comment, the report points out that as “technologies become more available, more mobile and ubiquitous, institutions will need to refresh notions of pedagogy to cope with shorter, sharper interactions coupled with smaller units of learning content delivered to handheld devices.” Such developments can be supported by the sharing of best practices. This will also help to ensure that online learning is seen as central to institutional mission rather than as a ‘bolt-on’.

Strategy, processes and culture is tied into three of the six recommendations (Recommendations 4, 5 and 6) made by Collaborate to compete:

Institutions need to take a strategic approach to realign structures and processes in order to embed online learning. This recommendation underscores the need to make online learning central to institutional mission and to ensure that staff ore ‘on board’ and that provision is both cost-effective and of high quality.

Training and development should be realigned to enable the academic community to play a leading role in online learning. This one is self-explanatory but reiterates the value of ‘mixed teams’ and the sharing of good practice.

Investment is needed for the development and exploitation of open educational resources to enhance efficiency and quality. The Open University (along with JISC and HEA) is given this responsibility as part of its national role and there is a “suggested investment” of £5 million per year for 5 years to take this forward.

My previous two blogs on Collaborate to compete have reflected on the implications for the Open University’s Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum. In relation to this part of the report, we are clearly responding to the need to make learning technology part of “everyone’s experience” as we move to include an ICT element on our Openings modules. I also think that this part of the report reinforces the need for academic practice to engage with the challenges and opportunities presented by the ‘latest’ technology. But perhaps the most interesting aspect for me is the discussion of the value of OERs and especially their use as free ‘taster’ content. I am currently working on ‘learning objects’ that can be used online. They derive from an Openings module (Learning to change) that is being withdrawn this year. They will be free to use and I hope that they will give people who are thinking about taking an Openings module a clearer idea of what involved in studying with the Open University.

I might talk about this in next week’s blog.

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