Collaborate to Compete: A debate
This week I came across the HEFCE funded project, Collaborate to Compete, which takes as its focus the future of online learning in Higher Education across the UK. I’ll leave you to read through the substantive elements of the document yourself (it’s only 20-odd pages), but it is worth drawing attention to some of its content to generate debate on how online learning can transform our institutions’ strategic direction, staff development policies and interaction with students.
I’ll start firstly with an admission – I’m a believer. Having used institutional VLE’s (like Blackboard) for a decade and more, slowly complementing these with edublogs, Twitter feeds and a Facebook presence, I think that online learning works – though I prefer to use the term blended learning to describe the range of face-to-face and remote (in a physical sense) interactions I have with my students. I’m not, however, naive enough to think that blended (or online) learning works for all, or that it can work without the requisite resources (human and financial) being invested at the right times. That is why I was glad to see that the Collaborate to Compete document stresses the need for a change in institutional mindset at the very highest level if online forms of learning are to generate the transformational changes they promise. Martin Bean, Vice Chancellor of the OU, has driven that institution to the forefront of online learning practice having spent a number of years working with Microsoft – an indication that we need to look at new ways of bringing private sector talent into the offices of power in our HE institutions – or, at least, develop better working relationships with technology providers to ensure that the online learning platforms we develop and the content we use is of the standard expected by students. And let us not forget that students do have high expectations of their online (or face-to-face) learning experience. The HEFCE report undertook research with student bodies and found, rather alarmingly, that students felt their lecturers lacked the technical skills to deliver online learning effectively. This will come as not surprise to some of you who have worked in the HE sector, but it does bring to light the importance of investment, in staff training and development, if universities are to exploit the potential of the virtual medium.
Now to what I think needs to happen beyond the publication of a useful report like Collaborate to Compete. Firstly, the report suggests that consortia need to be formed to share resources and expertise around effective online learning platforms and content creation tools. I agree and have already made strides towards this recently with colleagues from other Scottish institutions, Daniel Turner from Robert Gordon’s University and David Jarman from Edinburgh Napier University. Whilst we are currently looking at a module level collaboration, the funding pressures facing HEI’s across the UK will surely necessitate some more formal course collaborations in the media term. My take on the HEFCE report is that the creation of cross-institutional consortia will be incentivised with funding council investment and I believe we need to be in at the start, rather than reacting after the event. In my institution, we are developing a new Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategy – a perfect opportunity to think seriously about everything we do ‘with’ students as opposed to for them. The language games are important here – good online (and blended learning) needs to view staff and students as co-learners and the physical and virtual infrastructure of our institutions needs to be designed with this new culture in mind – a challenge, I admit, but then the alternative is that we continue to rely upon didactic approaches to L&T which, if attendance at lectures (face-to-face) are anything to go by, just is not working. Anyone for collaborating to compete?