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.
There are alternative models of open courses that adopt approaches based on collaboration and networking.
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.
The Teaching Excellence Framework for higher education in England identifies the following aim:
“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
- Competitors/other institutions
- 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.
Our marketing support guides include:
- Marketing your courses in a competitive environment
- Using popular websites to reach broader audiences
- Managing and sharing your course information
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?
|Barriers||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|
|Managing expectations||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|
- 1 The Higher Education Statistics Agency's management information service (HEIDI-PLUS) - https://www.business-intelligence.ac.uk/heidi-plus/
- 2 HEIDI-LAB national analytics experimentation project - https://www.business-intelligence.ac.uk/heidi-lab/
- 3 Make or Break: the UK's Digital Future - www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201415/ldselect/lddigital/111/111.pdf
- 4 FELTAG: Paths forward to a digital future for Further Education and Skills - http://feltag.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/FELTAG-REPORT-FINAL.pdf