How can universities unlock the potential of online learning?

Developing online learning is crucial for the future of HE. Josh Fry looks at how the UK can address the issues causing it to lag behind other developed markets

Online learning has been a rather heated topic of discussion between HE institutions in recent years. In Jisc’s new joint report with UCISA, Digital Leadership in HE, the importance of this discussion was highlighted even more. According to the study, the effective use of online learning was the top choice among university IT leaders when it comes to new technologies they think will have the most impact in their institutions in the next two to five years, with 68% of the votes. To put that into perspective, online learning got double the votes in comparison with artificial intelligence and machine learning, which were tied in second place, both with 32% of the votes.

It is refreshing seeing that over two-thirds of UK universities are prioritising digital learning tools, however, it seems that we are a bit behind in comparison to other developed nations in that aspect.

One example is the new master’s in management (MIM) that New York University’s Stern School of Business is offering, which is totally online. Other American HE institutions, including Ivy League universities, are joining the trend with online courses, MOOCs, and even MBAs hosted in digital platforms.

Harvard and MIT are already offering online courses as part of their degrees, and some IT leaders who took part in the study believe that, soon enough, UK universities will start offering courses from other HE organisations from abroad as being part of their own degrees.

There are quite a few examples of successful online learning initiatives in Europe as well, including the French university HEC Paris, which has recently had its first class of students graduating from their online-only master’s in innovation and entrepreneurship. Another example in France of successful digital learning space is ESCP Europe Business School, which, despite claiming to be the world’s oldest business school, does not hold back from modernising and trying to bring innovations to their students. ESCP expects that by 2022, at least 30% of their students will learn – at least partly – online.

It is important that universities don’t fall into the fallacy of driving digital transformation only for the sake of innovation itself

While most technologists in HE are excited to implement and/or develop more online learning initiatives in their universities, many are questioning the validity of such courses, taking a more traditional view. There are also IT professionals who argue that fully online degrees take away the ‘university experience’ from students and might even be harmful to their mental health. However, the advantages of online learning initiatives are many, potentially outweighing its disadvantages.

One of the key benefits is being able to provide more inclusion and accessibility to students whose circumstances may make it difficult to access full-time education – including those who work, and students who have children – giving them the flexibility that traditional degrees don’t offer. And with education providers responsible for upskilling, retraining and assessing our workforce to meet the demands of the fourth industrial revolution, it will be even more important that institutions are as inclusive as possible to ensure no one is left behind.

Universities must understand, however, that the introduction of such technology will only prove successful with an in-depth plan in place. Arthur Clune, director of infrastructure and faculty IT at the University of York, contributed to the report and told how his institution is adopting digital initiatives to aid their students’ learning paths: “Our pathway college/foundation year required huge amounts of data integration and the same happens with online learning. The leadership team recognises that if they want to be able to do big, systematic projects, then there needs to be investment – unless they want IT to be a bottleneck.”

With the sector struggling with shrinking budgets, it is important to have a well-defined road map of online learning implementation in universities for an impactful return on investment and not to risk unnecessary expenses. In fact, according to the study, 47.73% of IT leaders said that financial constraints were the biggest barriers to digital transformation in their universities, which is is why it’s so promising to see that 53% of universities currently have a digital strategy in place, while a further 21% have integrated their digital strategy into their other strategies.

John Beaver, director of IT services at Bath Spa University, participated in the study and highlighted the importance of having a clear strategy and proposal to convince leadership teams to invest in technology. He said: “Writing your business case is key, otherwise you won’t be able to get the technology. And resources are always tight, especially at the moment. There’s a lack of investment, a lack of cash. So that’s a gap: being able to have the capacity and the operating models to do the innovation. And designing your models only goes halfway to fixing that.”

It is important that universities don’t fall into the fallacy of driving digital transformation only for the sake of innovation itself. The objectives for implementing new technologies should be business-driven. This can aid in mending the gap between HE leadership teams and IT, where the former has the opportunity to understand better how technology can improve student experience and also enable university staff to deliver better, faster services.

It was interesting to see that organisational culture was the number one barrier IT leaders found for successful digital delivery in their organisation, getting 70.45% of the votes. There is a worry within university staff, especially in the academic department, where the potential disruption introduced by automation technologies – such as robotics and artificial intelligence – will dramatically change the way that teaching and learning is delivered. The uncertainty around the impact of these technologies – for example their effect on quality – can introduce resistance to innovation and change; which is why acknowledging staff’s concerns about this topic can be the first step to transform that scenario.

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The third biggest barrier to digital transformation, which got 40.91% of the votes was lack of capacity or capability in IT, which can be associated with legacy IT systems. When implementing and developing technologies such as AI and machine learning in an organisation, on-premises data centres don’t give the scalability, agility and capacity that a cloud infrastructure can. Beaver mentioned that, if he could start from scratch, all the infrastructure at Bath Spa University would be cloud-based. This, however, wouldn’t come without its obstacles:
“One of the challenges in moving from on-premises to cloud is it’s a fundamentally different set of skills that are required. Retraining, re-skilling and recruiting to make sure that you’ve got those skill sets is something that you’ve got to do.”

Training your staff to operate in a cloud environment might take a toll on your budget at first, but besides the obvious benefit of having a more skilled workforce, developing internal talent by creating career pathways might lead to better staff retention and increased productivity.

It is also easier to recruit when your systems are cloud-based instead of bespoke, since the tools are standardised. If universities are truly committed to digitally transform themselves and invest in online learning initiatives, then they need to think about cloud as the foundation and enabler for the implementation of these technologies.

Josh Fry is director of cloud at Jisc:

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