Provides tools, techniques, strategies and activities to support the development and provision of online learning programmes.
About this guide
Most institutions run an online course as a one-off or special project. Few however convert this capability into ongoing capacity. Institutions may need to design and run courses in response to identified market needs, or to scale up provision to meet demand, and help the UK stay ahead in the global higher education marketplace.
About our guides
Our series of guides will help your staff understand the decisions they need to make and the processes involved around scaling up online learning at an organisational level.
They will also help ensure that online students receive an equitable service and student experience to their campus-based peers. Specifically:
Scaling up online learning provides a strategic view of different models and the implications of implementing online learning at an institutional level
This series of guides provides insight into the range of factors that contribute to ongoing capacity. They offer tools, techniques, strategies and activities at institutional, strategic and delivery levels to support the development and provision of online/distance learning programmes.
All three guides indicate the barriers and actions you can take as well as illustrated examples from institutions that have developed useful approaches to overcoming the barriers.
Use our checklist (Word docx) which highlights key questions you may be considering for online learning provision. Your institution may be planning to adopt new models of online or distance learning or may be integrating online learning into existing courses. This checklist can be useful for both scenarios.
The checklist provides groups of related questions that could be considered by teams, committees or individuals. Some of the questions require institution-wide consideration, whilst others may also need to be considered at a departmental or course team level. The checklist includes strategic and operational aspects as well as more specific questions for individual courses, modules or learning activities.
Distance learning courses have evolved to incorporate developments in technology and are likely to have been adapted to include online learning. The terms ‘distance learning’ and ‘online learning’ have almost become synonymous, and for the purposes of these guides we refer mainly to ‘online learning’.
Approaches to online learning
Adopting a coherent institutional approach to online learning often relies on senior managers developing appropriate strategies that reflect the needs identified by market research.
Equitable and flexible processes should support these strategies to facilitate the development of online programmes that are as high quality, rigorous and credible as traditional courses.
Supporting staff and learners to take full advantage of online approaches also requires an institutional commitment to hear and understand differing needs. The voices of past, present and potential students can provide substantial insight to course planning and development.
Some online approaches require the adoption of more innovative and 'risky' practice and highlight issues of trust and risk management that present significant challenges for institutions.
Cultural barriers can be as challenging as technological or legal constraints. Your institution will need to adapt traditional discipline approaches, embrace the affordances of new technologies in curriculum design, and transform approaches to developing and delivering content.
Social networking, the web and mobile technologies, for example, present opportunities to embrace more interactive and collaborative approaches to learning and teaching. This can take teaching staff and students out of their 'comfort zones', leaving them feeling vulnerable and reluctant to change.
Teaching staff may also come up against barriers to online approaches embedded within the established support mechanisms of institutional IT and administrative systems.
There may even be 'institutional myths' or confused perceptions around online learning in your institution, where staff wrongly believe that they are not allowed to do certain things. Your institution will need to engage staff and manage change well to overcome these kind of obstacles.
Throughout this guide, we will consider barriers and highlight actions you can take, illustrated with examples from institutions that have developed useful approaches to overcome them.
Questions to consider
Your institution will need to consider some fundamental questions to assess how ready it is to provide sustained online learning.
You will need to think about questions like these:
At a high level - "why are we doing online learning?"
At a team level -"do we need to change our assessment design?"
At an individual level - "do I have the skills to adopt this new approach?"
Others are very specific, such as "do our IT systems support specific approaches such as bring your own device (BYOD)?"
Throughout this guide, we will highlight specific questions and offer ideas and examples.
Planning and decision making
There may already be small pockets of online learning happening in your institution. Some departments may be further ahead than others and may have already developed policies to support online learning.
Online learning audit
An institutional audit can help to determine what online learning models currently exist. It will highlight which curriculum approaches have been adopted, what technologies are being used, and how departments provide student support. The audit should also consider the impact on staff and identify what kinds of training and support are needed.
This also provides an opportunity to recognise and reward good practice. Identifying 'champions' of online learning within your institution is a useful way to engage other staff.
Institution wide approach
To scale up online learning effectively, your organisation will need to adopt an institution-wide approach. It should take account of market intelligence and external factors, and then develop a coherent plan towards implementation.
Taking an institution-wide approach doesn't mean that all courses should be online, but refers to the planning and decision-making process. Your institution's market intelligence should highlight which online learning models are most appropriate for different markets.
Engage in conversations
Once your institution has decided which models are most appropriate, it will need to engage in conversations across departments and central services to make everyone aware of the implications that scaling up online learning will have on their activities.
The hierarchical nature of educational institutions can hinder an institution-wide approach, as traditional communication channels may limit cross-departmental conversations.
To ensure that online students have a high-quality learning experience your institution may need to consider changing existing support structures and services. Our guide to technology implications of mergers and restructures considers ways to facilitate structural changes that will result from taking new strategic directions.
There is likely to be a need to develop new partnerships within the organisation as well as new relationships with partners outside the institution.
Online learning offers an opportunity to work with external partners on course design and activities. This engagement will mean the institution will need to consider and clarify issues around content ownership, teaching and support roles.
Your institution will have to consider the following aspects to ensure a planned approach to scaling up online learning. The first nine areas are discussed in this guide; the last two are covered in our two accompanying guides.
Your institution needs to identify the demand and opportunities for online and distance learning.
You can’t assume that your institution understands the complexities of providing fully online learning, or of blending this kind of provision with traditional models.
Massive open online courses (MOOCs)
Recent high-profile open courses such MOOCs have raised the profile and demand for online learning. But MOOCs offer a particular kind of online learning experience that doesn't compare to a formally accredited course.
They may have contributed to unrealistic expectations around online learning and generated some negativity amongst teaching staff, due to criticism of the educational approaches MOOCs have taken. Delivering a course to thousands of students encourages didactic approaches, such as offering videos of lectures supported by multiple choice questions.
Online discussion forums often support content but aren’t always facilitated or used by students if they don't contribute to certification. MOOCs are continually being developed, and some institutions are trying to address these criticisms.
For online learning, it’s important for your organisation to understand the demands and needs of international students.
In addition to cultural and language differences, there may also be issues around the reliability of internet connectivity and the type of technology available to students. This can have an impact on course design, and on which technologies an institution chooses to adopt.
It's useful to consider student expectations of the inclusion of technologies to support learning and teaching, and how far technologies can support the broad visions and strategies of the institution.
Strategies and policies around widening participation, flexible learning opportunities and inclusion may refer to the benefits offered by technologies. Institutional strategies also tend to reflect national drivers from governments keen to develop workers for a competitive economy.
“Ensure all students receive an excellent teaching experience that encourages original thinking, drives up engagement and prepares them for the world of work', in addition to other aims around raising the status of teaching, enabling students to judge quality teaching, and widening participation”
Managing industry demands
Your institution should also respond to demands from industry and the professions which graduates hope to enter. However, these industries and professions may not know what skills and knowledge future graduates will need.
Ongoing partnerships and communications are important to nurture these relationships and to translate these needs into an appropriate curriculum.
Networked technologies and mobile devices may have resulted in changes to how these practitioners work. For example, they may now use distributed networks of workers instead of using office-based staff.
Engaging with industry/professions to identify these changes and adjust the curriculum accordingly also presents an opportunity to consider how online learning can contribute to changing industry needs. There's an increased focus on work-based learning and distance learning to support continued professional development (CPD).
Working with external partners means that both industry professionals and alumni who have moved into professional practice can potentially input to the design and delivery of online courses.
Your institution needs access to accurate, timely and meaningful information about its core businesses and the environment in which it operates. Our guides on developing business intelligence and data visualisation offer advice and guidance on making the best of such information.
One of the biggest challenges around this is the amount of complex data available from internal and external sources. Find out more about our business intelligence work with the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), and more detail on HESA’s web-based management information service1 and our work on the national analytics experimentation project.2
Your institution will already have sources and mechanisms to gather and analyse intelligence data. It’s unlikely there will already be a comprehensive set of data that relates specifically to online learning, so your institution may need to draw out relevant information from a range of sources.
It’s important to find out what your institution already knows about the demand for online learning. This process will expose any gaps in your intelligence.
Your institution will need to gather intelligence around existing online provision, including what competitors offer. This may need to be carried out at a subject discipline level, because it could have a significant impact on which courses can be adapted and identifying opportunities for new courses.
Sources of intelligence include:
Your own institution
Students (past, present and future)
Government reports such as the Digital Skills Committee3 or FELTAG's digital future of FE4
Funded project outcomes in the UK, Europe and the global community.
Branding and marketing
Your institution should develop business models that reflect market needs, but also position itself appropriately to target different segments of the market.
Identifying a unique selling point (USP) is the key to successful brand building and marketing. Our chair, David Maguire, said at the Universities UK 2015 conference:
"To me it comes down to ABCD: is our brand authentic? Is it believable? Is it compelling? And is it distinctive, different?"
Different models of online learning such as open classes, blended approaches or distance courses can offer new business models or bring new dimensions to existing models.
It’s crucial that your institution’s online courses are discoverable. How easy are your courses to find via Google, or on your institution website? Course listings must provide a clear overview of what the course offers, with step-by-step guidance for potential applicants.
It's worth making sure that the listing and information help users to answer common questions effortlessly.
Other factors to consider:
Decision making can be a long process for potential online students – often six months, or more
Students tend to assume that online courses based in the UK are of higher quality
Being able to get advice from an expert is very valuable to potential students
Social aspects are important to students - what do others say/think about the course? where can they find this information?
Consider including short videos from current/past students - is there an interest group they can join?
What you can do
Difficulties identifying demands
Invest in good market intelligence mechanisms
Use external reports and research
Work closely with industry and professions
Try to identify a unique selling point (USP)
Lack of skills to interpret the data and make effective use of intelligence
Provide staff training
Create a central team of skilled staff to inform managers of intelligence
Appoint a one-off team to produce a report with recommendations
Make sure your marketing is clear
Provide access to student guidelines
Be responsive but present realistic solutions
Responding to ongoing changes and market forces
Develop strategies and policies that support and allow agile responses and innovative approaches
Establish regular mechanisms to respond to intelligence
Your institution may have already adapted their business models to incorporate online learning, but it might not be the result of a coherent strategic or planned approach.
Online learning activities often emerge in pockets within an institution. Departments that have a history of providing distance learning courses are likely to be leading the way and probably incorporate online approaches.
Distance learning markets are predominantly postgraduate and often related to professional qualifications. This high profile, demand-led type of provision can result in the development of separate institutional systems and services to ensure that workplaces, which may be paying for courses, get the level of service that they require.
Your institution may already have these and decide to keep them separate from the undergraduate provision. Distance learning teams are likely to have considerable knowledge and experience that could feed into other courses that want to incorporate online elements.
Developing a business case
When individuals or departments introduce online learning, they may have had to navigate around, or even circumvent, several obstacles at an institutional level. Senior managers need to be involved, understand the benefits and be prepared to support system, policy and procedural changes.
Your institution should develop a clear business case for online learning that:
Identifies various possible business models
Outlines the benefits to different stakeholders
Links proposals to the institutional vision and aims
Considers the operational and resourcing aspects
Offers an implementation plan.
Strategies and policies
Your institution should consider the impact of online learning on support services, administrative mechanisms and different staff across the organisation. It also needs to incorporate online learning into existing strategies and policies or create new ones.
For example, your institution may have a strategy for implementing educational technology, which could include online learning. Putting it in institutional strategies sends out clear messages to staff about institutional commitment, and suggests that appropriate support mechanisms will be in place to support staff through transitions.
Taking a strategic and integrated approach to online learning means that your institution has to acknowledge how complex this may be - from changing IT policies to supporting curriculum change, or even expanding the student demographic.
It also requires a coherent, institution-wide approach to managing change – and senior managers may need to adopt less risk-averse attitudes.
Your institution needs to provide appropriate and equitable support for online students and understand the staffing and wider resourcing implications. This includes technical, educational and pastoral support, covered in our accompanying guide, curriculum design and support for online learning.
What you can do
Cultural resistance to change
Identify and appoint champions at all levels of the institution
Adopt a coherent managing change programme
Embed online learning in institutional strategies and policies
Provide staff training and support
Recognise online teaching approaches in staff appraisal mechanisms
Institution is unaware of the benefits for different stakeholders
Develop a business case for online learning; provide staff engagement activities, training and support
Learn from external stakeholders, such as industry and professions
A business case might include several business models and will highlight the benefits, costings and operational aspects of various approaches. Senior management should consider and agree on formal business models and incorporate these into institutional strategy and policy.
This is more likely to put the right operational systems and procedures in place to provide appropriate support for staff and students.
There is no single model for online learning. Your institution should consider what approach is best for its needs, following an audit of existing online provision.
An audit provides an opportunity to identify models that are working well, and can also identify strengths of the institution, staff champions and any barriers.
Within your institution, campus-based courses may already have elements of online learning to support flexible delivery, or to widen access. Some classes may have pedagogic approaches that are best supported by online learning elements.
Support teams may use online technologies to support 'point-of-need' or 24-hour demand (such as information searching).
Recognised business models
Fully online courses go through validation mechanisms and will have been formally approved, but may not be recognised as an institutional business model. Online learning models could also incorporate other business models such as open learning or open content.
The type of models that you could adopt or may already exist include:
A blended approach, which adds online classes or modules to existing campus-based courses
Initial small-scale pilots, which will be evaluated and feed into future developments
Online taster courses, to support marketing and building a brand in the global marketplace
Open online courses, where classes or whole courses are offered to open students
Fully online courses, adapting existing courses or creating new courses.
Central institutional services might find it difficult to support online learning that has developed in a piecemeal way. It's important that your institution reviews support mechanisms when it carries out an audit.
This is likely to highlight where teachers and facilitators provide the kind of support to online students that central services offer for campus-based students.
New online learning models require support at a managerial level or, at the very least, tacit agreement or acknowledgement that there may be some risk of failure. Departmental managers can help teaching staff navigate some of the difficulties presented by institutional barriers, such as those presented by using different technologies, or by issues of content ownership.
Managers may be able to secure an exception to existing policy, particularly if adopting a pilot approach. Incremental change is a low-risk approach that allows different models to be tested.
This approach can highlight the benefits and operational challenges presented at each stage of change, and provide evidence of the impact you expect each change or pilot to have on stakeholders.
Evidence and testing
Gathering qualitative evidence is important to support the effective evaluation of any pilots you trial – we recommend you gather this evidence as part of any changes you pilot to support future scaling up.
Staff involved in testing out new models can feel vulnerable if there is no formal support and can become frustrated at any lack of appropriate institutional systems and services. Short-term project funding or an injection of extra funds can provide a protected space to innovate, time to try new methods, employ additional staff and time to reflect and evaluate.
When scaling up online learning, you need to carry out an institution-wide consultation with all appropriate parties to ensure that strategy, policy, operational systems and procedures are considered and adjusted appropriately. This includes:
Past, present and future students
Validation and quality
Support services such as IT, library, student support
Senior management teams
Marketing and branding
External partners (from industry and professions).
Focussing on equity of provision for both campus-based and online students is important, for both the academic experience and any additional support that students demand or need.
By contrast, Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) doesn't have many online courses but ensures the ones they do have are successful. MMU has implemented a useful checklist1 to help staff decide if online/distance learning is appropriate.
What you can do
Identifying the most appropriate online learning models can be difficult
Test different models as pilots to find out what works for different subject areas
Assess models against current central services and systems to find out how much adaptation is needed
Talk to the wider community to find out which models are successful
Consider which models align with your institution's strategies and policies
Senior managers may be difficult to engage
Involve senior managers in developing a business case for online learning
Provide staff engagement activities, training and support
Gather evidence of success from other institutions/competitors
Highlight the implications of not adopting online learning in comparison to competitors’ activity
Existing systems and services are not equipped to deal with large-scale online learning
Develop a procedure to assess how ready central services and individual departments are for online learning
Support institution-wide communication to make sure online learning models are fully supported
Provide central support mechanisms to help people build capacity for online learning provision - training, resources, tools
Your institution's strategies may identify organisational-wide visions or reflect departmental goals. Online learning could be incorporated in several institutional strategies including:
Learning, teaching and assessment
Student retention and success
Focussed online learning strategy
Your institution may have already developed a formal online learning strategy through the process of creating a coherent business case.
There is a case to be made for developing a specific online learning strategy. It can serve as a signal to staff that this is a significant and valued activity for your institution or a particular subject area.
Specific online learning strategies for particular subject areas can help to reflect changes in the profession or industry that graduates hope to enter, and how these might impact on the education of future professionals.
However, when online learning reaches an institution-wide scale and becomes a part of mainstream activities, it may be better incorporated into existing strategies.
This approach to creating a new learning, teaching and enhancement strategy created a 'university conversation' through multiple local interactions between staff and students. Including the student voice offers a powerful mechanism to respond to real and perceived needs and to balance provision against expectations.
Strategic online learning response examples
Examples of strategic responses to a variety of areas related to online learning include:
Our guide to enhancing the student digital experience offers information to support institutions to develop digital environments.
It suggests ways to meet students’ expectations and help them to progress to higher study and employment, including BYOD policies.
What you can do
Existing institutional and departmental strategies do not join up
Use online learning as an opportunity to revisit all strategies and policies
Change outdated strategies and use this as an opportunity to engage and inform all staff
Embed online learning in institutional strategies and policies
Staff reluctance to engage with or adopt online learning
Include online learning in strategy and policy documents to give a clear signal that online learning is valued
Use changes to strategy to highlight changes in institutional vision to staff
Educational quality and equity
A recent report into the quality, equity and sustainability of higher education (HE) regulation1 identified the need to make changes to regulatory processes in HE in England.
This is in response to changes in funding and accountability, where students are now the principle direct funders of undergraduate provision. Despite changes at a national level, your institution is likely to maintain a degree of autonomy in establishing quality measures.
Although focussing on HE in England, this signals a general move towards increased accountability to students. For example, the Scottish Quality Enhancement Framework includes a need for a 'greater voice for student representatives in institutional quality systems'.
Equity of provision
A move to online course provision may mean that existing course validation mechanisms need to change. It can be easier to implement online modules or classes without significantly changing existing course descriptions, aims and objectives.
Ensuring equity of provision is vital if offering the same course to both campus-based and online students. Your institution needs to ensure that neither groups of students are disadvantaged by their choice of attendance, or by your course delivery choices.
Students can feed back on the quality of their educational provision through both the National Student Survey and your institutional mechanisms, allowing you to gather this and use it.
Our work around digital students offers a range of examples showing how to involve and empower students.
We recommend the following approaches to make sure that your institution is listening to the student voice, either on-campus or online:
Carry out student surveys that include questions about their digital experiences or expectations
Gather student opinions on specific aspects of digital provision, eg, the VLE or library services
Include student representation on groups that make decisions about the digital environment
Work through digital issues when they come up in general student voice/student rep sessions.
Providing equal access and services for all students is important, but not always easy to deliver. For example, it can be particularly challenging to make sure online learners have an experience of assessment that’s comparable with campus-based students.
The same is true for access to content, information and support services.
Campus-based student support services may operate within a fairly traditional work day, but online students may expect the same levels of support when they are active online - which could be out of normal office hours.
Teaching staff may end up providing support but may not have sufficient skills or training to do this effectively.
Equity is particularly relevant for learners with disabilities, and your institution needs to consider how its choices of online curriculum design, technology, assessment and support meet a variety of needs.
Assistive technologies offer some solutions for some learners, and we recommend that you involve disability support services in considering and informing some of the choices we mentioned above.
Your institution will need to consider the costs of different models of online learning when it develops a business case.
This is where the benefits of the various models are balanced against costs.
If online learning models align with institutional strategies, your institution should be able to identify and measure the value of interventions, based on the impact on business outcomes.
Measuring the impact of specific interventions on learning can be a challenge, as so many variables can also have an effect.
We recommend that your institution considers long-term qualitative and quantitative measures following initial benchmarking or baselining. Short-term measures may not be helpful, as it may take years to see the benefits for the institution and the students.
Learning analytics provide one way to gather data that may help your institution identify benefits.
Sometimes there can be significant indicators, such as the large increase in student enrolments to Coventry University’s undergraduate course in photography,1 which went from nine students a year to being the most over-subscribed course in the institution.
Short-term measures, such as the level of student interactions online such as blog posts, or contributions to discussion boards, show the extent of interactions – but it’s much harder to prove that this benefits learning.
Tools, case studies and guidance
Our costing technologies and services guide offers approaches to costing and you can use it to quantify efficiency savings and tangible benefits arising from process change.
Our case study shows how Lewisham College applied this tool to calculate the return on implementing its student portal. This short video describes how University College Falmouth uses the tool to ensure that projects deliver the benefits they promised.
Case study - estimating teaching costs
The Course Resource Appraisal Model (CRAM) tool, developed by the London Knowledge Lab at the Institute of Education, includes a video tutorial on how to estimate the teaching costs for a course and the teaching related income for each student.
The tool is a useful resource for any institution planning a new course, whether face-to-face, blended or fully online.
In this video, Eileen Kennedy provides an overview of the CRAM tool:
Benchmarking IT costs
There may be extra costs when first implementing online learning such as:
Capital costs for IT infrastructure
Extra time to adapt curricula
Costs of developing new learning content
Costs of training for staff.
Our financial X-ray service helps IT departments to benchmark, understand and easily compare overall costs, and help build a business case for infrastructure changes.
Costs for online students
Online students may bear some costs that a campus-based student would not have. They will need to pay for internet access, their own devices, and possibly software, in addition to textbooks.
Online learning can reduce some of the costs for institutions, depending on the scale of provision or the number of students enrolled. Online students don't need access to physical resources such as buildings, heating, lighting and equipment.
Some models of online learning, such as MOOCs are designed to reach thousands of students, and adopt methods that require minimal human interaction.
Although it can be costly to set up a MOOC, in the longer term these can offer cost-effective marketing opportunities that advertise the institution's brand in a global marketplace.
They also present opportunities to generate income by charging students who want to purchase certification of attendance.
Our blog post identifies the difference between models of open courses.
Online learning is likely to have a significant impact on how your institution allocates staff to various functions. In addition to existing staff roles, new ones may develop in an online learning context.
These might include developing new kinds of content to support changing curriculum approaches and assessment strategies or identifying a need to moderate, support and facilitate online discussions.
Out of hours support
Providing out-of-hours or 24/7 online learning opportunities can have a significant impact on workforce planning. This may change which staff provide different kinds of support, and might need to be provided outside traditional working hours.
The initial implementation of online learning may require additional staffing, particularly if time is given to evaluate and reflect on new methods and approaches.
Staff levels and capabilities
As staff roles change your institution will need to consider existing staffing levels and capabilities, and may need to approach staff support in a new way. Staff appraisal and performance review mechanisms should include online learning and innovative approaches to teaching and learning.
This not only provides a signal to staff that innovation is encouraged, but also offers an opportunity to recognise and reward staff who are working in this area.
Some staff in your institution may already lead the way in online learning and can act as champions to engage and support other staff. Many staff may feel threatened by online learning and may worry that their jobs are threatened, or that they do not have the necessary skills to use the technologies for learning.
Your institution can engage staff with activities to highlight the pedagogical benefits of online learning where technologies aim to support, not replace, teacher-led approaches.
Teaching staff may need more technical support for themselves and their students when they first implement online learning, as they build their confidence and skills.
Staff from central services such as IT and the library will need to adapt their provision for online students, which also may impact on their staffing levels, time-planning and skills requirements.
Online learning provides an excellent opportunity for central service teams to work closely with course development and teaching teams to ensure that online students receive the most appropriate services.
Your institution needs to comply with legislation pertaining to personal data, learning activities, research outputs, employing staff and the provision of other services.
Many activities involving computer networks and systems will be affected by this.
Our networking, computers and the law guide offers information and advice on monitoring networks, issues that may arise for staff and students, the disclosure of information to officials, and logs and data collection.
Intellectual property right law has struggled to keep up with changes in technology - our guide on intellectual property rights in a digital world focuses specifically on this, looking at different kinds of content and licensing issues.
Data and privacy
With online learning, the laws remain the same – but your institution may need to reconsider how it deals with these operationally. For example, the ways in which campus-based students validate their identity, and how their data and privacy are protected, will be well-established.
Online students will need different mechanisms, and this is particularly challenging if courses or classes involve external participants with no formal connection to the institution.
Your institution should develop formal policies at an institutional (rather than departmental) level, with advice from appropriate legal experts.
Once these have been agreed and implemented, staff and students will need clear information and guidance to make sure any online learning activities comply with the law. Institutional policies should include ownership and licensing of content, but it is helpful to allow provision for some flexibility.
Some projects, classes or courses may develop content that is intended to have open licences, and if institutional policies do not make provision for this then staff may be tempted to operate 'under the radar'.
Any student may choose to access learning activities or content through mobile devices, but online students are more likely to do so.
Staff don’t know which legislation affects online learning provision
Identify and appoint champions around legal issues
Provide clear guidance and training
Offer a staff and student legal service, particularly during early days
Access national legal guidance and services
Staff and students don’t understand how online content licences work
Staff engagement activities, training and support
Incorporate content licensing into digital literacy elements of the course
Provide online tutorials and guidance around licensing
Use content developed by other institutions or use open educational resources (OER) which address this issue
Your institution will continually adapt to external influences including:
Economic pressures from changing funding structures
Market pressures from changing demands and expectations
Increased student numbers as a result of widening participation strategies
Increasing competition in the post-16 education sector.
It will already have experience of managing change and may have implemented mechanisms to support staff through change.
Some change is imposed and requires reactive management, but taking a planned institution-wide approach to managing change increases the likelihood of buy-in from staff and development of sustainable outcomes.
Risk management is an essential part of good management practice and applies to all areas of your institution's activity.
It's particularly relevant for projects with an IT or systems component. Online learning brings specific risks, and your institution needs to decide how it will manage or mitigate those risks.
Adopting an online model of learning impacts on institutional systems and policies, resourcing and operational management, teaching, assessment and student support. New risks may also emerge concerning ownership and licensing of learning content and personal data.
Using web technologies and cloud services raises risks around service continuity and long-term access and storage. New approaches to curriculum design and delivery can present risks to equity of services for all students, and around readiness and capability of staff and students.
The way your institution manages risks can affect the level of innovation and the scale of new approaches to learning. Some managers may be more risk averse than others, which can encourage staff to develop workarounds for activities that are perceived to be high risk.
Activities and methods to build trust offer powerful ways to overcome barriers around risk. Small-scale online learning projects or initiatives can be used to generate trust and address risks in non-threatening ways.
They can be useful to highlight how far the benefits of new approaches outweigh the perceived risks. Innovative practice needs a level of trust to take risks – and sometimes fail.
Your institution may already have a system or mechanism to analyse and manage risks. They will likely include:
Identifying risks associated with the activity
Assessing and analysing risk
Planning responses to risk
Ongoing risk monitoring and control.
Risk management approaches
Adopting a well-managed approach to risk, approved by the institution as a whole, may convince senior managers to endorse new online learning initiatives.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) risk management guide1 offers practical guidance on how to enhance and embed risk management processes.
What you can do
Senior managers are risk averse
Try to establish senior management buy-in
Find online learning champions in senior management teams
Gather evidence of the impact and benefits of online learning, both within and outside the institution
Develop strategies and policies that support innovation and agile development
Staff worry about taking risks
Staff engagement activities, training and support
Use good examples of online learning models from other institutions
Staff try to create workarounds to avoid confronting institutional systems or services
Gather evidence of activities happening 'underground' to help make them mainstream
Middle managers can shield teaching staff as they try to innovate
Managers can help staff navigate through institutional systems and barriers
Small-scale online learning projects can provide an opportunity for innovation and evaluation, as well as space to reflect on impact and outcomes.
Sustaining this kind of initiative beyond project funding or pilot time-scales can be challenging, particularly if staff have been funded or seconded on a temporary basis.
Innovations led by individuals can also be difficult to sustain if that member of staff leaves or has their energies directed elsewhere.
Adopting a strategic approach
Your institution needs to consider longer term sustainability of online learning initiatives during the planning and implementation phases, taking a strategic approach to consider:
The need for appropriate change management mechanisms to stimulate culture change, and support staff through the changes
Working with existing institutional structures and adapting these as appropriate. For online learning, this might include identifying how existing security measures can work for off-campus students, or how far assessment records can incorporate new forms of assessment data
Embedding or aligning online learning initiatives within existing strategies, processes, systems, initiatives and services. Including online learning in mainstream strategy and policy gives a clear signal to staff that this is an important activity for the institution
Creating guidance, tools and resources to meet stakeholders’ needs as they adapt to changes. This might include staff development materials, sessions, or tools and checklists to help staff consider all aspects of implementation
Developing commercial and open approaches to sustaining and embedding innovation. Involving external partners either as co-authors of courses and content or having some interest in assessment or accreditation can help make online learning more sustainable.
Choice of technologies
Sustainability is affected by the choice of technologies that support online learning. External technologies and services are beyond the control of an institution, so it’s useful to have alternative solutions ready if services are withdrawn or encounter other problems.
Sustainability of all technology choices should be a part of overall risk assessment processes.
Involving external partners or participants in the development or implementation of online learning may affect sustainability and requires a risk assessment. Establishing formal contracts may be appropriate to ensure that their input is sustained, but in the case of open online students (link to content) this is unlikely to be easy.
Working with external partners can help your institution keep up to date with current and changing practices and adapting curricula appropriately.
This is likely to have a positive impact on the long-term sustainability of a course, by helping it to remain relevant and responsive to industry needs.
Your institution will monitor student retention (“drop-out”) for all courses, but this can be a particular issue for online learning students. The organisation needs to manage its relationships with online students so that they feel connected to the institution and have positive engagement with the course.
Learning content developed outside the usual institutional mechanisms can be challenging to manage and sustain.
Your institution will need to develop policies to determine how long content will be maintained and managed, particularly if created and owned by external participants (ie, not staff or registered students), or if it is stored in the cloud.
What you can do
Cost implications of sustaining short-term online learning pilots or projects beyond initial stages
Build in sustainability into planning and implementation
Provide staff training and support
Identify cost saving opportunities (eg, paying research students to facilitate online discussions)
Cultural barriers to change
Incorporate online learning into institutional strategy and policy to ensure sustainability
Staff engagement activities, training and support
Your institution will have relationships with partners, students, alumni, businesses and local authorities.
Managing these relationships properly will ensure that the services and activities you offer are appropriate, legal and responsive to both expressed and anticipated demand.
It can help your institution earn revenue, enhance your reputation and gain the benefit of additional experience and knowledge. Online learning offers new opportunities to engage and include external partners.
Our relationship management guide explores the challenges faced by further and higher education in improving and maintaining relationships with stakeholders.
Employee access to higher education considers how educational institutions can deliver relevant courses that meet the needs of industry, are useful and have flexibility that enables employees to take up the learning opportunities.
Online learning is one way to expand the kinds of courses offered by an institution in response to such needs and are particularly useful for part-time students.
Partnerships and engagement
Online learning may involve developing new partnerships and engaging different kinds of students. Your institution will need to consider how far these will affect current provision and services, and how much they will need adapting.
These partnerships may also benefit campus-based courses.
This is a critical factor in internal relationship management for educational institutions. Staff need to know that they'll have appropriate support when implementing new ways of teaching.
Students need to feel they are receiving an equitable experience with on-campus students. When trying out new teaching and learning approaches, getting students to trust that this will not adversely affect their education may be difficult.
Some online activities, such as collaborative exercises or peer assessment, may need additional reassurance to get students engaged.
Your institution must be fully aware of the benefits of new approaches and be able to articulate these to students to generate trust.
What you can do
Students are unsure of the benefits of different approaches to learning
Provide clear information about the teaching approaches being adopted
Highlight the benefits of the teaching approaches
Engage students in identifying new approaches to teaching
Competitive environment doesn’t encourage trust between staff
Reward collaborative and co-operative approaches in staff appraisal mechanisms
Provide staff engagement activities, training and support to encourage collaborative working
Lack of trust between different departments
Create institution-wide forums for discussion and sharing
Establish collaborative approaches across faculties and departments
Administrative systems are critical in helping your institution manage a range of functions. Core administrative systems and information for online learning are equally relevant for face-to-face teaching provision.
Administrative systems generate several different sets of data including:
Personal data of staff and students
Records of attendance
Achievement and learning activities
Broad student numbers and demographic data
Data from specific services and support functions.
Data created by institutional administration systems needs to be well managed and accessible to appropriate groups of people who legitimately need to access it.
Managing institutional data is challenging enough, but the increasing use of cloud computing services (link to section) for administrative and teaching functions adds another layer of complexity.
Our data visualisation guide offers charts and good design tips to help you create powerful and persuasive graphs for decision making.
Levels of engagement
Online learning provision may result in new types of students registering on courses or accessing classes. These may have differing levels of engagement with the institution itself, or possibly no relationship at all if they're learners who dip into open classes or courses.
Online students will interact with institutionally provided course information and content but may also create their own online materials during learning activities.
They may also produce content in collaboration with other students or remix (enhance or augment) existing content.
How online students engage with information and manage their data may challenge existing policies and procedures around institutional data management. A policy may be useful to identify how student-generated content will be aggregated, curated and stored.
Managing and curating data
Teaching staff who adopt web technologies to support online classes may need additional guidance and support around managing and curating data. For example, using external hosting services for blogs and course websites raises issues of security, ownership and content management.
Teaching staff may take on new roles where aggregating online content created by other 'experts' or students, or managing online formative feedback from external contributors or other students, becomes a regular activity. Tracking student online activities needs appropriate management and may become a task for teaching staff in an online learning context.
Our guide on hosting liability highlights the responsibilities for published content on your institutional computer systems.
What you can do
Security challenges around information that also needs to be accessible, particularly in relation to cloud services
Adopt information security risk management as a corporate governance issue
Ensure that staff and students understand the risks and their responsibilities to follow institutional guidance
Use this aspect to educate students as to their own personal and professional information, and their own data management
Staff don't understand the impact of curriculum design choices on administrative functions
Involve operational managers in discussions at an early stage
Provide checklists to help course designers consider administrative and data management aspects of online learning provision
Adopt a coherent managing change programme
Staff training and support
Rigid administrative processes and practice can block or hamper curriculum innovation
Develop a business case for online learning that includes consideration of administrative and data implications
Staff engagement activities, training and support
Collaborative approaches to change management
Using academic analytics
Your institution collects and analyses data to inform the decisions it makes. Quantitative information is relatively easy to gather, and academic analytics is a critical aspect of business intelligence.
Our business intelligence guide includes a section on the use of data and considers the choices institutions have as to which activities to track, and how the data will be analysed and used.
Enhancing processes and experiences
Learning analytics uses data about students and their activities to help institutions understand and enhance educational processes and support. It may also help your institution track and improve student attainment and retention.
Learner analytics may include specific student data or that gathered from anonymised collections to consider educational experiences more generally.
Your institution will have to consider how it deals with sensitive data and should create a policy that articulates and handles any ethical issues arising from this.
Measuring student interactions
Social network analysis has emerged as a popular measure of student interactions online but is less useful for campus-based students, where the majority of interactions take place face-to-face.
Assessment analytics can be considered a part of learning analytics but is emerging as a separate area of activity. It has the potential to provide additional feedback for staff and for learners, but the sensitivity of the data it collects means this needs careful management.
For online learning analytics, your institution may need to review existing policies and develop new mechanisms to deal with different kinds of data. In particular, the ownership and use of data gathered from non-registered students can present a specific challenge.
Specific online activities can be tracked and illustrate engagement, for example showing how much a class uses a hashtag, or how many comments were made on student blogs.
Your institution can incorporate tracking mechanisms within learning content to ascertain how much they are being used, by who andto a lesser extent how.
You can also use online content analytics data to support arguments for scaling up online learning approaches.
What you can do
Staff lack skills to interpret analytics
Provide staff training and support
Use specially trained centralised teams to analyse data across departments
Expectation that analytics can provide more intelligence data than it can in reality
Conduct events to engage staff and make them more aware of this
Provide staff training and support
Students are not clear about the purpose of tracking activities
Reassure and educate students as to the benefits and purpose of tracking activities
Develop a code of practice for staff and students to clarify what is being captured and why
Supporting and integrating IT systems
IT systems support various institutional functions that have an impact on online learning:
Research - repositories, access to online research journals
Learning and teaching - VLEs, e-portfolios, online assessments
If these were originally developed to support campus-based courses and learners, they may need adapting for online learning. Your institution should also make sure that online students have the right level of support to use them effectively.
You should adopt a strategic approach to IT developments and enterprise architecture (EA). Our guide offers practical guidance and tools to help institutions record and understand how the various systems, processes, people and operational mechanisms of an institution work as a whole.
Using EA to consider how to scale up online learning helps to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your institution. This kind of approach highlights resource implications; our costing technologies and services guide suggests tools and methods that can help institutions with this process.
Our cloud computing guide describes some of the benefits and risks of accessing networks, servers, storage, applications and services in the cloud. Services in the cloud can make content easier to access, and resources easier to discover, so have the potential to improve online learning provision to global audiences.
Our technology and tools for online learning guide considers the range of these available, along with some of the issues that your institution may have when integrating institutional and external services.
What you can do
IT services may be concerned about security and online students’ access to institutional systems
Involve IT staff in early discussions around proposed changes
Provide staff training in technical support for online students
Highlight the benefits of any changes for students and the institution
Make sure that institutional strategy and policy includes online learning, as this gives a clear signal of institutional commitment to change
IT services are reluctant to allow use of non-institutional technologies
Develop a policy document for online learning that articulates the benefits of using non-institutional technologies
Provide evidence (from initial pilots) of how these technologies enhance the student experience and how they might contribute to branding and marketing
Obtain senior management buy-in
Adopting an organisation wide approach to scaling up online learning means that your institution takes proper account of the wide range of factors that need to be considered.
Use your intelligence
Gathering market intelligence, and identifying demands and expectations feeds in to developing an appropriate business case for your institution. Using this information to identify business models leads to the development of strategies and policies that shape the provision of online learning.
An institutional audit of your existing online learning provision will highlight champions and good practice and can provide valuable evaluation data to inform future developments.
Working in partnership
Making sure that your teaching and support staff are fully informed, engaged and appropriately trained is a crucial aspect of providing equitable and high quality online learning experiences for your students.
Building and maintaining new partnerships within and outside your institution is another important aspect that can ensure that online learning provision can meet demands, be sustainable and incorporate future needs.
Operational and systems integration
All of your central institutional services need to support online learning activities and students, from teaching and technical support to pastoral and careers advice. Systems must work together to gather, manage and share data and information in new ways.
Curriculum design and delivery
Curriculum design is a critical factor for new and existing courses. New technologies offer exciting opportunities for redesign and existing technologies can be used in different ways. It is even more important to engage online students, and offer timely and useful feedback to ensure retention and attainment.
Our technology and tools for online learning guide discusses a range of issues and choices that need to be made around using technologies. It also considers different technologies and offers examples of their use in an educational context.