U.K. Universities Embrace Digital Disruption

The usual response for an industry faced by the sort of disruption that digital technologies bring is to circle the wagons ever tighter. It is rare to find one that actually embraces it.

Launching Friday a group of U.K. universities, lead by the Open University (O.U.) — the U.K.’s distance learning establishment — have collaborated to form what is believed to be Europe’s first massive open online course (known by the rather inelegant acronym MOOC) following in the footsteps of prestigious U.S. colleges like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MOOCs are, as the name suggests, courses offered by universities. But rather than being simply the preserve of the few able to fit into a lecture hall, a pedagogical technique that hasn’t changed much since the University of Bologna opened its doors in 1088, they are open to anyone with an internet connection, for free.

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind,” said Martin Bean, Vice Chancellor of the O.U., “that the march of open education resources has created a set of disruptions for higher education largely around content. It has unbundled the business models.”

Led by the O.U., but working with a number of leading U.K. universities (but not including either Oxford or Cambridge), a new body, FutureLearn, has been created. It will offer a range of free, open, online courses, in the same place and under the same brand. They will also offer social collaboration and other online tools. FutureLearn will announce future details of its structure and courses early in the New Year.

The company has multiple aims said Mr. Bean. Opening up resources is a societal good of itself. The O.U. already offers material through Apple’s iTunes U and via YouTube. The O.U.’s material on iTunes U has had more than 59 million downloads from 8.2 million visitors.

FutureLearn is also a classic freemium model — offering free and paid-for services. Students will be able to access all the material for free but FutureLearn will offer different layers of certification for rising fees, from a self-administered test offering a low-level of certification right the way through to a fully-invigilated examination.

Then there is the marketing dimension. ”It is arguable that where much of the growth [in Higher Education] is is in the developing economies of the world.” In exports alone, said Mr. Bean, higher education generates £14 billion a year for the U.K. economy.

“For the U.K. sector there is tremendous opportunity for us and our partner institutions to engage students around the world: ‘If you enjoy what you did, would like to consider what you did as an undergraduate’?”

But the impact will also be felt much closer to home, he predicted. “What it really does is to change the focus of an [educational] institution from defining its value based on its content, to defining its value to their students based on the caliber of the teaching, the brand of the institution, on the pastoral care, and the market value of the qualification through the awards it offers.”

“We should be celebrating institutions going and finding the very best content on the planet, so instead of being worried about the content, be worried about providing great teaching. You source the best content in the world — and your job [as a tutor] is to ask the right questions to test people’s understanding and to spark debate — that is where learning comes from.”

He was realistic about the early steps that universities were taking. “The business models that emerge in the early stage may not be the models that endure.

“I think one of the great advantages of FutureLearn for those institutions we work with is to allow them to experiment in alternative ways of teaching and learning, and which, I hope, will be carried back into the core teaching experience.”

Mr. Bean predicted many institutions would resist the disruption. “There will be a lot of institutions who will be challenged by the idea that there value is not defined by their lecture notes.”

The universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton, St. Andrews and Warwick have all signed up to join FutureLearn.


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