Online learning fund to benefit both online and off?

Universities are being asked today to work together to bid for money to develop new e-learning projects.  David Lammy (Minister for Higher Education) is hoping to help ensure UK universities are at the forefront of online distance learning.  Lammy announced a £20million learning innovation fund to allow better access to online learning.

Among other things, a new taskforce is hoping to, “work to increase the quantity of learning resources freely available for all institutions to use”.

photo by jaylopezFor you, as students, the more quality information available for free online, the better it should be.  That’s even if you live on campus and aren’t studying online as such.

You can already access a huge number of wonderful resources for free, but much of the content originates outside the UK.  For the UK to retain a world-class status, more effort is required to increase the amount of quality material placed online.  Better scope to promote lifelong learning and the constant updating of skills is also required.

Now more than ever, we want to find material that speaks to us. It’s not good enough to find a particular resource dry and difficult to study from, yet have no option but to carry on regardless.  More content available in different formats means we have more chance to effectively digest information in whichever way suits us.  And generally at our own pace too.

Lammy said, “Education must be increasingly personalised to meet the needs of the student as the student requires it and wherever the student requires it.”

David Lammy

David Lammy

At the same time, a new report, supported by JISC, has been released.  Called “The Edgeless University“, the report calls for universities to embrace technology and make the most of the tools available online in order to be at the forefront of Web2.0, social networking and communication.

Online study activity is becoming more important for students, as is easy access to material and content online that is openly available to all.  I know not all students are happy to interact online in the same way they check Facebook and chat with mates, but the game is changing fast.

The ‘Edgeless University’ report mentions Dr Michael Wesch, who has worked wonders at the University of Kansas with his Digital Ethnography programme.  Wesch says, “What I need to do is inspire [students] and give them the tools to harness that information and harness the skills of other people to do the things they want to get done. And that transforms the way you approach the classroom.” (Page 37)

And there really is a transformation.  Not all academic material need come from the confines of a university, especially as online collaboration becomes more common.  However, since the greatest amount of research can take place in HE institutions, it’s sensible to see the uni as the best place to make as much world-class information accessible as possible.  This is where the new learning innovation fund hopes to come into play.

Interactivity is a big deal too, which the ‘Edgeless University’ report supports.  When students see a tutor who is open and available online to talk to students, the demand to engage with that tutor face-to-face actually grows. So students demand more exposure face-to-face as opposed to less.

And face-to-face learning is so important, especially for those who have just left school.  While distance learning should be embraced as a good thing, I still see the student experience of 18 (ish) year olds spending three or so years on campus as a worthwhile and fulfilling encounter that should not be ignored.  Living on (or around) campus is important for the social element, the extra-curricular element, the lifestyle element, and so on.  Do everything online and you could miss out a great chunk of what’s possible.

Nevertheless, the ‘Edgeless University’ report states:

“We are having to reassess the stereotypes associated with ‘being a student’ as something that teenagers do after school and before they start work. It’s a three-year experience – you arrive with a suitcase and leave with a degree. In fact this model of higher education – residential, fulltime and pre-employment – now only reflects the experience of a minority. Two out of five higher education students are currently studying part-time; 59 per cent are mature and almost 15 per cent come from overseas; and there is every indication that the student population will continue to grow and change.” (Page 18)

It’s clear that things are changing, but I hope the ‘stereotype’ remains a big deal, even if student numbers overtake in other modes of study.

Whatever the future holds, the materials that should arise out of the new learning innovation fund would hopefully be of use to each and every student, regardless of their circumstances and the materials they already have access to.