Is the future of higher education Open and Online?

Michelle Matheron asks whether Wales can lead the way in delivering Higher Education online

Earlier this year the Welsh Government published a significant report on a topic of great importance to the future design and delivery of higher education (HE) in Wales.  ‘Open & online: Wales, higher education and emerging modes of learning’ is a worthwhile and important read for anyone working in the HE sector and in particular those interested in educational practice.

The report is the culmination of the work of an independent ‘Online Digital resources Working Group’ established in February 2013 by the previous Minister for Education and Skills, Leighton Andrews.  Chaired by the former National Librarian for Wales, Andrew Green, and with representation from across the education sector and beyond the group was asked to “examine the potential for online digital learning and how the Welsh Government can support the higher education sector in this growing field.” The report does just that providing a robust snapshot of current practice in this very fast-moving field and offering a series of recommendations to Welsh Government and Higher Education Institutions in Wales.

There are two aspects of the report that are certainly worthy of detailed attention not least because they speak directly to two Welsh Government priority areas – widening access to HE and skills development.

The past decade has seen a vast increase in interest and activity across the globe in the development and use of digital teaching and learning materials; making courses and resources freely available on the internet. My own institution, The Open University, has been using broadcast media as the vehicle for its educational resources for decades and the shift to delivering our courses online has in many ways been a natural extension from those late night BBC2 programmes of the 1970s.  But in 2006 the OU launched OpenLearn – an online learning platform offering the chance to study extracts from OU courses for free in your own time.  OpenLearn had 96,000 visitors from Wales alone in 2012-13.  We have also seen an explosion in the development of MOOC platforms such as Coursera and EdX where you study short courses from some of the world’s best Universities online for free in a structured way.  The UK’s first MOOC platform Futurelearn launched in 2013 with courses from institutions around the globe including Cardiff University.

The amount to which these developments will truly disrupt the future delivery of HE remains to be seen.  For example, a lot is still unknown about the types of students who sign up for MOOCS (one study from Edinburgh University into their Coursera MOOC course found that 70.3 per cent of respondents studying the course already had a degree) and the extent to which they will encourage students to take a further step into HE study.  The ‘Open & Online’ report rightly recognises that simply putting courses online is only part of the story. The potential for OER to widen access to HE is there but it will not succeed without further interventions and support.

The report also highlights the potential of OER for developing skills in the workplace and the boosting the Welsh economy.  The Welsh recently launched a Skills Implementation Plan and UKCES figures show that 28 per cent of Welsh employers report a skills gap with their workforce.   Online learning could play a major role in this skills development agenda.  In order to upskill our existing workforce and open up learning opportunities we must think not only about what we teach (and who pays for it) but also how that learning is delivered.  The potential here is huge and it could be the only option if we are serious about developing the skills we need to operate competitively in the economy – we cannot rely on 21 year old graduates or those who can fund their own independent studies alone.  Finding new ways for employees and those seeking work to study online could have a major impact on our economy.

Today sees a further development in Wales’ OER story as The Open University in Wales launches OpenLearn Cymru – a free, online learning platform for Welsh-medium study.  Working with the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol and seeking to complement the provision already available via Y Porth OpenLearn Cymru offers free courses (with materials taken from accredited OU study) and resources across a broad range of disciplines including Welsh history; skills and employability; social work and psychology.  The ability to reach learners in all parts of Wales (and beyond) without the requirement for them to all come together physically to study could have a major impact on what courses are made available and who chooses to study them.

These are exciting times for OER in Wales and there is some excellent work in progress such as the Higher Education Wales OER expert group and the Cadarn learning portal, but this is a fast-moving agenda and we need to be wearing the yellow jersey.  Much is made of Wales’ ability to “punch above its weight” in areas such as academic research but Wales should also be ambitious to punch above its weight in the delivery of education and to become a leader in the field of Open Educational Resources.  The future of higher education may not rest entirely online but we certainly need to be open to the possibilities and the potential.

Michelle Matheron is Policy and Public Affairs Manager at The Open University in Wales.

2 thoughts on “Is the future of higher education Open and Online?

  1. This is a timely article. Online learning is certainly a huge growth area for the future – and one where Wales has the opportunity to steal a march on the rest of the UK.

    Having tried a couple of very different online courses this year, one with the American EdX and one with the British FutureLearn, this really is the way all education is going to go. Indeed, it is amazing that it has taken so long to get this far. After all, the basic technology has been here for more than a decade. Of course it did not help that ‘New’ Labour, in one of their less-publicised abominations, basically took an axe to extra-mural education. Michael Gove deserves credit for finally getting a British MOOCS off the ground, albeit several years late. Even as it is, the range of courses on offer on FutureLearn is very small.

    Many of the ‘partners’ signed up for FutureLearn have yet to offer a single course. Cardiff, the only Welsh partner, is offering nothing so far for the autumn. Meanwhile Groningen in the Netherlands and Monash in Australia are offering courses in the UK, and Auckland in New Zealand is offering two.

    The key to future marketing of such courses is developing the ability to offer accreditation leading to generally recognised qualifications. This is turn feeds into the broader issue of developing a simplified and unified system of qualifications.

    This is where the Welsh Assembly could play a useful role. However, simply talking is not enough. Instead of writing more reports, someone needs to get some actual Welsh courses on line, ideally with meaningful accreditation.

  2. Very good article and an important topic. However, I have a question. If the OU is already leading the way and has done so for the past 15 years, why is it necessary for Wales to ‘lead the way’? Surely, it is sufficient to adapt/use existing best practice to the Welsh context. The words ‘re-inventing’ and ‘wheel’ spring to mind as it does constantly when politicians blather on about the ‘Welsh Way’! What we need is the ‘best way’ not some other way fudged together by the politically correct..

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