Initial reflections on the future of online learning

The first few months of 2010 were very busy for our group as we tackled (with the support of JISC) a complex and wide ranging study for the HEFCE Online Learning Task Force (OLTF). On 17 March we submitted our overview of the current provision of HE level online distance learning in the UK to the OLTF. Recently, as a result of the study and other research, HEFCE published a short paper to encourage discussion and feedback from the sector on the work of the OLTF. In the paper they highlight a number of our key findings:

  1. More should be done to provide a simple taxonomy of the wide range of student experiences that currently fall under the broad title of ‘online distance learning’.
  2. The vast majority of online distance learning offered by HEIs is focused on postgraduate-level provision.
  3. Most online distance learning can be identified as professional development, or as having a strong vocational focus.
  4. It can be challenging for potential students to find out about online distance learning courses, with information often hidden in complex institutional web-sites.
  5. Where details are available, they frequently fail to provide the full range of information that a potential student needs to make a decision about studying online.
  6. We need to improve the market intelligence available to give a clearer picture of the position of UK online distance learning in an international context.

Notably the paper also mentions that: “96% of undergraduate students use the internet as a source of information and 69% use it daily as part of their studies”. The Task Force however are not distracted by this level of uptake and set out a clear position with regards to technology:

“…It is also clear that technology platforms are not a barrier to success. The OLTF does not intend to dedicate significant attention to this area. We intend to pay more attention to business models to ensure sustainability and cost-effectiveness, and to pedagogical good practice to support academic quality.”

In my opinion this is indicative of a Post-Digital approach in which as one of the study’s interviewees put it “the technology is vital but not central”. I’m pleased to see this underpinning philosophy being taken by such an influential group (especially as Post-Digital thinking informed my two presentations to the Task Force).

As ever it is important to stress that the Post-Digital does not discount the importance of those groups and individuals employed to develop and manage technology. In fact this approach makes clear the need for ongoing innovation and an active engagement with emerging platforms/services.

“The OLTF is aware that there are a number of organisations that are already active in supporting UK HE as a world leader in online learning: for example the British Council, the Higher Education Academy and the Joint Information Systems Committee. It is keen to ensure that institutions harness such expertise…”

I hope that the ongoing work of the OLTF continues to recognise the importance of academic expertise, institutional savvy and the need to understand (and occasionally challenge) student expectations. Certainly any approach that does not imply that technology is some sort of ‘magic bullet’ for the limitless up-scaling of HE level education must be healthy. This approach also helps to manage institutions’ expectations of technology and those who are responsible for its implementation.

Our full study of online distance learning in the UK is due to be published by the OLTF in late June 2010. In the meantime take a look at the HEFCE discussion paper. Responses are due in by 14 May.

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