Degrees of separation

The UK’s higher education sector was struck with a brutal double whammy in October 2010.

First, Lord Browne’s report on higher education funding and student finance recommended, among other measures, that universities raise fees from £3,300 to £7,000 – a move that many fear will reduce the number of people that can afford to attend university.

Second, the government announced in its comprehensive spending review that higher education funding will be cut by £2.9 billion to £4.2 billion by 2014.

These measures come at a time when publicly funded universities face increasing competition from private education providers and from a burgeoning higher education industry abroad.

All of this has given rise to a prevailing realisation that the UK’s higher education system cannot continue to operate as it has done for much longer. And with the encouragement of government, universities are now looking at ways in which technology might help them to adapt to these new circumstances.

Two approaches, both of which have been around for some time, are therefore gaining renewed interest: shared services and online distance learning.

Learning from afar

Distance learning is nothing new: The University of London has allowed students to earn degrees from abroad since 1852. However, as Andrew Bollington, chief executive of the university’s international programmes unit, explains, the Internet has dramatically improved the student’s experience of distance learning.

“A century ago, the student would have been sent a box with books in it, and then they would go into an exam room several months later to prove that they had digested them,” he says. “Now, that experience can be far more interactive.

“We can give students access to resources that we couldn’t possibly have sent to them by mail; we can give them access to journals that were printed last week; we can put them in touch with their fellow students. I don’t think any of these are earth shattering, but you put them all together and distance learning is becoming far richer and more interesting than it ever was before.”

Of course, distance learning is not reserved for students in other countries. It has long been a way for people with full- or part-time jobs to gain qualifications while still earning a living. This is an increasingly popular option, even at the undergraduate level. Last year, one in four registrants to the Open University, which only offers distance-learning courses, was under the age of 25.

According to David White, a senior manager at the University of Oxford’s Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning (TALL) unit, the imminent funding upheaval will make distance learning a more attractive proposition for the universities too. “Any vice chancellor is going to be looking at doing more online distance learning for a number of reasons,” he said at the Association for Learning Technology’s annual conference in September. “It makes your education into an export, and although it’s not cheap, it is cheaper than building new buildings.”

For universities, online distance learning represents an opportunity to offer services to a wider audience at (arguably) a lower per-student cost. Little wonder, then, that through bodies such as the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), the UK government is encouraging universities to pursue online learning. However, setting up an ‘online university’ is no mean feat, as the government learnt for itself in the early 2000s.


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In February 2000, at the peak of the dotcom boom, education secretary David Blunkett launched a project to build an entirely online higher education facility called the UK e-University. Four years and £50 million later it was scrapped. It had attracted just 900 students – way short of its target of 5,600.

A 2005 report examining why the UK e-University failed found that the project had focused too intently on building the technology infrastructure and had not paid enough attention to demand – the classic dotcom folly. “The assumption was that once [the infrastructure] was right, the projections of very high student numbers would be easy to realise,” the report explained. “Unfortunately this assumption was [based on] an over-confident presumption about the demand for wholly Internet-based e-learning.”

The Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE), one of the UK e-University’s principal backers, is now taking a more measured approach. In December 2009, it set up an online learning task force to find out what online courses are available in the UK, and how they work.

The task force found that there are 425 courses offered by universities directly and about 170 that are run in partnership with private organisations. The courses were typically postgraduate and often covered business-related subjects, especially in the private partnerships.

One of the task force’s findings is that if a course tutor (all distance courses involve some form of tuition) has more than around 30 students at any one time, some of those students will disengage and drop out. “Everyone we interviewed, even in the private partnerships, said that they can’t find a way of changing these numbers,” says Oxford University’s David White, who served on the task force. This, he says, proves that the Internet cannot be used to deliver higher education at an industrial scale, as some might hope.

The task force’s other conclusions were that finding courses online can be difficult (something that proponents of semantic web technology believe it can address), and that institutions are still struggling to find the right business model to support online distance learning. “Business models were the most substantive problem,” says White.

Open heritage

A related concept to online distance learning is the notion of ‘open educational resources’ (OER). This was pioneered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  (MIT), which has made many of its course materials, including reading lists and recordings of lectures, freely available online since 2000.

The idea of making educational resources freely available online struck a chord with the UK’s Open University (OU), whose mission is to make higher education more universally accessible. In 2006, the OU launched OpenLearn, a website that gives visitors free access to a wealth of course materials. These materials are published under a Creative Commons licence, so they can be translated and reused for many other purposes.

The OU is now encouraging other universities to make their educational resources openly available, and so far it has helped more than 80 institutions to do so. “The UK government has funded some of this work, and they are very much encouraging universities by giving them money,” explains Laura Dewis, head of online commissioning at the OU. “However, they’ve been saying, ‘We’ll give you this money, but you have to find ways of sustaining [OER].’”

One concrete way in which OpenLearn benefits the OU is as a marketing tool. By analysing its web traffic, the university found that last year 6,000 OpenLearn visitors went on to enrol in the University that it believes wouldn’t otherwise have done so. But there are strategic advantages too. “We advocate the use of OER as an innovation platform, helping people think about how they might deliver teaching online,” says Dewis.

Not everyone is confident that OER will benefit all universities. If educational materials become the marketing collateral with which institutions attract distance learners, not all of them will be in a position to compete. “The worry for universities that don’t create the content, which is a large number, is that if the top-rank universities are making their materials freely available worldwide then they may capture large parts of the market,” explains John Townsend, director of corporate information systems at Liverpool John Moores University.

Indeed, there have been some indications that OER pioneer MIT has itself been struggling to find a sustainable business model. “Until now, we’ve sort of been operating like [US newspaper] The New York Times, making all of our class notes available for free on the web,” said Lori Breslow, the director of the university’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory, at a conference in September. “We’ve come to realise that may not be the best economic model,
so we are now looking seriously at new e-learning opportunities.”

MIT later denied that this meant it was considering putting a pay wall in front of its open educational resources. However, Breslow’s analogy to the competition between open and closed business models that is still unfolding in the newspaper industry is revealing. If the experience of that sector is repeated, it will be many years before every university finds the right model to support online distance learning for its particular circumstances – if they ever do.

There is an even bigger question, though: what effect will the increased use of ODL have on the quality – and nature – of higher education?


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Professor Mohammad Dastbaz is dean of the School of Computing, Information Technology and Engineering at the University of East London (UEL), and his specialist research topic is electronically supported learning.

In one study, Dastbaz divided students on a course about business research methods into four groups. One group was taught the course through “multimedia-enhanced material”, another through traditional distance learning with tutorials. The third group received conventional lectures and tutorials, and the fourth a mix of all the above.

At the end of the course, Dastbaz tested the students in three ways: on their recall of facts from the course; on their understanding of the content; and on their competence at the research methods in question. “The multimedia group did quite well in terms of recall,” Dastbaz explains. “But in relation to competency, i.e. applying the knowledge that they have gained, it was the more traditional group that did better.”

Dastbaz’s finding suggests what most online courses already acknowledge; that a degree of personal engagement – with both tutors and fellow students – is required for quality higher education. Dastbaz is by no means an sceptic – after the Open University, UEL is the second-largest provider of online distance courses in the UK. However, he says, “we still have a long way to go before we can fully substitute the one-to-one experience that students get attending lectures and tutorials with just online materials.”

The HEFCE online learning task force came to a similar conclusion. “Students need multiple points of feedback, a lot of peer-to-peer learning and a lot of contact with tutors,” explains David White, adding that the best way to achieve this in online learning courses is to support as many communication technologies as possible. “The [learning providers] who did this successfully were the ones that had multiple points of contact.”

According to Professor Susannah Quinsee, director of the Learning Development Centre at London’s City University and chair of the Heads of E-Learning Forum, the availability of online learning materials calls into question the lecture-driven model of higher education, to some extent.

“Why would a student come in and listen to a particular lecture when they can get access to the expert in that field on the Internet?” she asks. “Increasingly, the role of the academic is to facilitate learning and engage with the students, helping them pull information sources together from a whole range of areas.”

In conventional universities, this function is provided by tutorials. Niall Sclater, director of learning innovation at the Open University, argues that this is a model that cannot scale. “That Oxbridge model [of tutorial-based learning] is very effective, but it is incredibly expensive to run and cannot be replicated by all universities,” he argues.

David White believes that in future the relative wealth of universities and their students may dictate the degree to which online distance learning is used. “I think there is also going to be a divide between institutions based on the mode of delivery,” he says. “Those who can afford it will go face-to-face and those who can’t will end up going online.”

In September 2010, higher education action group Universities UK warned that the divergence of traditional, residential universities from distance learning organisations could lead to a social divide. “Unless we think about the issues now as we imagine the new system, we might end up with a clear social dividing line between the two forms of receiving higher education,” said Professor Geoffrey Crossick on behalf of the body.

White believes that this will only be true if online learning is seen as a second-class, budget option. This need not be the case, he says. “Personally, I think there’s a chance you’ll have more contact with your peers in online distance learning as long as it’s well designed. We need to be careful to defend that.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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