An open letter: Alternative and specialist institutions aren’t irrelevant; they’re an important part of the future of Higher Education – along with online learning

Posted on: 2016-04-29

Guest post by Ashley Wheaton, UCEM Principal

ashley_wheaton__732x1024__205x287As reported recently in Times Higher Education Richard Garrett, Director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, has stated: “Open and distance learning universities (ODL) must determine their competitive advantage…” – “…the onus is on them to clarify their relevance.”

Sadly, there is less attention paid in this article to the difference between specialist and open/distance learning providers – i.e., those that rely on distance learning in their delivery, and specialist providers that use ODL as part of serving specific audiences. The difference is key, as it defines how institutions can prove their relevance.

Mr Garrett cited the UK’s Open University in the article – which has reported a £7 million loss after losing a third of its new students – but this isn’t necessarily the best example of distance learning, as the majority of its students are ‘leisure learners’. In this current economic climate, people can’t pay out thousands without some sort of recompense – i.e. a new, well-paid career or promotion.

He also said that these ODL institutions can no longer “…parrot that their value lies in convenience and flexibility” – but these factors are highly important. Distance institutions are often specialist providers; focusing in a particular area can provide close ties to the professions and economy – and upgraded, business relevant skills. For example, the Built Environment can guarantee a fulfilling, profitable and life-long career; the wider Construction industry is one of the largest sectors in the UK – with 2.93 million jobs and a market set to grow by 70 per cent over the next decade.

This is certainly part of the reason UCEM has seen steady growth in its student numbers, reporting double-digit growth in 2014/15 and 2015/1 – and more than 4000 student HC. In addition, the education options offered by alternative, online, distance learning and specialist institutions are flexible, accessible and cost-effective. Students can study whenever and wherever, and even earn whilst they learn – gaining valuable work experience and reducing student loan debt (especially with lower fees than the standard £9k a year demanded by traditional universities).

Mr Garrett went onto say that, “…many ODL institutions experience a tension between enabling access to non-traditional students and delivering a quality student experience.” He then added that’s “…there’s plenty of scope for improvement” and suggested technology as the key to this. 

We agree that technology is vital, one of the biggest trends transforming Higher Education today is online learning; due to recent technological advances – such as mobile devices and the cloud – and business and educational communities increasingly operating in a global digital world. Online learning makes it much easier for people with busy home and work lives to embark on further education, in order to change careers, earn a promotion, or update their skills.

And employers are beginning to see advantages in hiring students who have studied online over those who have undergone a traditional university experience, due to the dedication and commitment they prove in taking this route. While, for institutions, online learning not only has the potential to be much more cost effective it can also boost individual funding and internationalisation strategies; enabling institutions to grow diversity and reach people who previously might not have been be able to study with them.

In terms of ‘delivering a quality student experience’ while accessing non-traditional students – these can go hand in hand. Mr Garrett himself suggested that, “…(ODL’s) distinctive characteristics could be their size, expertise, student support or student outcomes”. 

Online learning students can choose where and when they want to study as there are no set lectures and they aren’t tied to a physical campus – and still get full support from tutors and communicate with fellow students whenever they need. Properly designed online learning programmes can provide high levels of interaction, overcoming many of the unique challenges for vocational education.

UCEM’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) takes advantage of the possibilities afforded by new technologies, and ensures learning is truly engaging. It helps build a lively and relevant dialogue with learners using a variety of media, from live timetables and guidance from tutors to an e-library and online quizzes. Furthermore, discussion forums and tailored chat rooms help students – from all over the globe – assess and advise on each other’s contributions at any time.

At our recent industry event, Professor Roger King, co-chair of the Higher Education Commission, covered the importance of technology and students being at the heart of the system. He stated that, “…the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will undoubtedly bring about more institutions with a strong commitment to teaching and learning…and it’s great to see such a development as correcting the imbalance between research and teaching and learning in our Higher Education sector”.

In addition, he talked about how the latest Higher Education Commission report looked at digital online provision and the potential of data and analytics in the sector. He said, “There’s a massive increase in the amount of data that now exists in Higher Education, and also in our ability to perform increasingly sophisticated analytics and predictions using that data.” More and more, ‘fluid data’ – generated through the increasingly digital way a student interacts, such as log-ins to e-books – will provide an instant, accurate picture of how a student is performing.

Above all today’s institutions should be committed to excellence in their processes and their outcomes for students, and also to providing high-quality, cost-effective, accessible and flexible learning.