Online tuition options are not second-rate, says task force chair

Dame Lynne Brindley aims to dispel myths and build on UK's position. Rebecca Attwood writes

July 29, 2010

The idea that online learning is a "poor substitute" for campus provision is a myth, according to the head of the UK's Online Learning Task Force.

In a time of hefty cuts to higher education, sceptics will argue that the government's heightened interest in online learning is driven - at least in part - by a desire to cut costs.

But, in an interview with Times Higher Education, Dame Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library and chair of the task force, said the best examples of online learning were "not cheap alternatives" and required "deep consideration".

The task force is "trying to dispel some of the myths that online learning is a second-rate alternative", she said.

Meeting the changing demands of students - whether they are studying on campus, at a distance or via a combination of the two - is one of the group's priorities.

But there are financial, as well as pedagogical, objectives.

The key goal is to help UK higher education remain a "world leader" in online learning, growing its international market share by 2015.

The task force includes experts from Microsoft, Apple and Pearson, and the heads of The Open University, King's College London and the University of Wolverhampton.

Although established under Labour, the task force is examining issues that are of as much, if not more, interest to the coalition government, Dame Lynne said.

Given the financial crisis, it seems likely that online study with UK institutions will become an increasingly attractive option for overseas students.

Equally, within the UK, the recession "will lead to many more people wanting flexible arrangements that allow them to combine work and study", Dame Lynne said.

There is, she believes, no time to waste. It is clear that competition is growing internationally, while private providers' ambitions in the field are expanding.

Work commissioned from the University of Oxford suggests that outside The Open University, the majority of UK online distance learning is at the postgraduate level, often with a vocational focus.

Importantly, discovering what is on offer is "ridiculously difficult", with information often buried on websites, Dame Lynne said.

"If this is going to be a growth area, this has got to be improved. Even if it is discoverable, there is often not enough information for the prospective student."

A separate study conducted by the National Union of Students has examined demand for online learning among UK students.

Dame Lynne said that students' technological expectations were broadly being met, but that there were concerns about "a gap between the ability of students to use these technologies and the ability and willingness of (academics) to use them".

The study also reveals a potential solution: students were keen to get involved in shaping online strategies and course development, something that Dame Lynne said would be "very beneficial, given that today's students live and breathe Web 2.0".

The private sector has been particularly quick to realise the potential of online learning.

With round-the-clock learning, prompt feedback and flexible courses, the offering provided by private institutions is "in some cases pretty impressive", Dame Lynne said.

So is greater collaboration between public and private providers the way forward? Labour's 2009 framework for the future of higher education, Higher Ambitions, suggested that it might be promising "seedcorn" funding for public-private partnerships (PPPs).

Echoing David Willetts, the Conservative universities and science minister, Dame Lynne emphasised the value placed by students on accreditation and links with well-established universities.

But she added that PPPs "require some culture change".

Overall, online learning is not an easy area to succeed in and there is no single answer. For the task force, models coming to the fore do include PPPs, as well as the validation of private providers and also specialist niche provision.

Examples highlighted in an update published by the task force earlier this year include partnerships between the University of Essex and Kaplan Open Learning, and the University of London External System, which recently won praise from Mr Willetts.

The task force, which will report in the autumn, will also examine what can be learned from projects that go wrong and the potential of open educational resources.

ONLINE-ONLY DEGREES: Berkeley says it's a case of when, not if

The University of California, Berkeley aims to become the first top-tier research institution in the US to offer fully online undergraduate degrees after a pilot scheme was approved by the California system's board of regents.

Budget cuts of more than $800 million (£517 million) have forced the beleaguered system to look for new income streams. Under the plan proposed by Christopher Edley, dean of the Berkeley School of Law, an initial group of between 25 and 40 courses will be offered entirely online.

Although the scheme depends on raising $6 million from private sources, Professor Edley said that it would pay for itself by saving on the "bricks-and-mortar" costs of traditional on-campus courses.

Students taking degrees online will face the same entry requirements as those on campus, and if the pilot proves successful they will also be expected to pay the same fees.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Professor Edley said it was not a case of whether top universities should offer online-only degrees, but when.

"Online undergraduate programmes in selective institutions will happen," he said.

"The question is when, and led by whom."

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