Outside of a few exceptional cases, a lot of institutions have yet to make much headway in expanding and refining their online offers.
With continued improvements in home bandwidth, greater public exposure to technology and all kinds of exciting start-ups promising to use the power of the network to help people learn, you might expect that we’d be experiencing a boom in fully online degrees and courses offered by higher education and further education.
A small survey we conducted jointly with the Association of Learning Technology (ALT) earlier this year suggested that, while progress has been made since the HEFCE Online Learning Task Force first examined this issue in 2010/11, it is at a far slower pace than originally anticipated.
We found that of the courses that were being offered online, most were at master's or professional level, or generally viewed as one-offs, rather than linked to mainstream delivery or marketing efforts.
Understanding the issues
We want to understand the barriers stopping you from adopting more online learning and to find the best solutions to address those problems. To do this we’re undertaking a range of engagement activities with customers.
Our first session in July proved very informative. We gathered together a group of interested staff with a variety of backgrounds and expertise to take a fresh look at what is stopping the rapid expansion of the online offer.
The session posed two alternate scenarios; what would it be like if we really nailed online learning, and what will happen if we continue to carry on as we currently are. It then asked why the necessary changes hadn’t yet taken place.
Participants identified that there were three main reasons for institutions not moving towards online provision at a higher speed:
A lack of strategy emerged as the biggest barrier, with twice as many votes as any other category - something that was also borne out by our survey data. By strategy, the delegates meant the way in which the institution orients itself towards expanding an online learning offer.
Many universities and college may aspire to offer more online but few have taken the kind of process and policy decisions that back this up, often viewing online learning as a kind of unwieldy add on. Where marketing, validation and quality assurance all assume an on-campus delivery, it is difficult to develop an alternative without seeking special dispensation – all of which takes time, and must be repeated every time someone wishes to start a new online course.
A catch-all heading that incorporated everything from staffing to materials and technologies, as well as the amount of funding available. The latter is of course linked both to the institution’s strategy – with investment usually following hierarchical institutional will – and the current funding environment.
Clearly the development and delivery of an online course has financial and staff time implications and these costs do need to be covered somehow.
This area related to the roles and responsibilities of those involved in designing and delivering online courses. It was felt that staff needed greater skills and confidence to undertake this, with a lack of consistent top-level support, good teaching practice and mentoring all being raised as issues.
Some attendees at our workshop identified themselves as academic staff, others as support staff specialising in online learning and it was noted by the attendees that what was often missing was a role or set of skills that combined both subject knowledge and teaching experience with technical know-how.
To conclude the day delegates worked together to come up with ideas for how institutions could expand their online offers and overcome the barriers identified.
While there were a range of potential solutions put forward, two in particular seemed to resonate: the creation of a curated resource containing evidence and success stories of online learning offers; and establishing a community of best practice.
Attendees felt that these initiatives would enable institutions to move forward with confidence, maximum impact and minimal risk. We’ll be exploring these and other options over the coming year.
Over to you
But what do you think? Did our delegates get to the crux of why we are not seeing more institutions expand their online learning offer? Or is there something else holding back online delivery?
More importantly, how can we encourage universities and colleges to explore how online courses could benefit them and their students, and help them approach it in a more unified way?