Universities must adopt online learning in order to survive

Featuring Jon Faulkner (6bythree CEO).
Published www.openaccessgovernment.org – July 2020

Jon Faulkner, CEO, 6bythree.com UK, discusses the future of higher education and the inevitable move towards online learning in order to survive

We are living through a period of great uncertainty and change and as we slowly start to emerge from lockdown, it’s becoming clear that many parts of our society will have to adapt to survive in a very different world. UK universities and the higher education sector are no exception.

Universities in the UK have been ploughing the same furrow for many years and their business model hasn’t really been challenged in that time. It revolves around attracting students who choose to live away from home, with life focusing around the campus for three to four years. It’s increasingly clear that this model is outdated, but universities have to change and respond effectively.

There is a growing group of people – younger and older – for whom full-time study away from home does not work. The campus-based degree is not for them and it is life-long learning that they are seeking. I believe that, partly due to the way the world has changed in the last few months, we are at a tipping point and now is the opportunity for the sector to transform with people-centred technology and digital transformation at the heart of that. Those universities that step up to that challenge are the ones that will thrive in the future.

Collaboration with existing technology providers

The existing degree model is inflexible and university fees are expensive for those that want to improve their prospects. It’s hard to get that career step-change needed without a complete change to the way they live.

There is an increasing demand for modular courses that you can slice in different ways and study from home. Today’s students want short courses to match career choices and this holds true for undergraduates as well as for older students who want to retrain.

Technology can easily solve this problem and there are many excellent existing programmes that can work well in the learning environment. Technology also offers a great levelling of the opportunities and opens education up more readily to people from all backgrounds. It is up to universities to investigate the potential of these platforms, collaborate with them and create a new way of learning that doesn’t involve starting from scratch.

For example, existing platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, can record sessions and provide good online support for students as has been shown by the private school sector during lockdown. The Government has just announced a new initiative that over 50 HE providers are launching with Uni4me, a new, online hub offering virtual online and blended learning courses, online tuition and  Live events involving leading academics, students and specialist HE advisors. I expect to see these collaborations growing as universities start to adapt.

Workshopping technology like whiteboard tool Miro can be a great visual way of showing work and Augmented Reality already exists in the gaming industry that can be adapted to play a part in more practical courses.

Those universities that really understand that they need to adapt and expand their digital platforms to offer what students really want, should now be looking for collaborations with tech companies to devise modular online course options that are accessible to all at an affordable cost.

Modular learning

We already know that online learning can work well – The Open University is an example of this, although they continue to evaluate their fee structure in line with the market –  and in recent years, many Universities such as Oxford, Imperial and UCL have started experimenting with MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) for free via FutureLearn with the option to upgrade if you pay. These have proved popular and affordable meaning that many people can pay less but get qualifications from an internationally recognised University.

Modular learning programmes which allow you to pick and mix from a number of different courses is likely to be the model going forward with students able to fill their virtual shopping baskets with the best modules for their needs rather than signing up to one degree or higher education programme that is only partly relevant to them. However modular courses need to be inclusive and allow people to learn whatever their income.

How can universities differentiate?

Elite universities will always attract students because of their name so will continue to trade on that, but for many middle-tier universities that attract because of location or for a particular course, the future will lie in identifying other differentiators to attract potential students as competition becomes more intense. Future learning will be more about the quality of the learning experience and how geared up they are to teach remotely in an interesting way using different technologies.

Peer interaction is equally important for many students and that’s all about building groups and communities. Although most teaching and assessment can be done online, enrichment e.g. a personal relationship with a tutor, meeting other people on the course and face to face interaction could easily be crunched into a much shorter period of time over the course so that students attend only for a specific period, i.e. a term, a few weeks, weekends or for events. This is likely to prove a key differentiator for students.

Employability and wellness programmes have been much talked about in recent times, but the truth is, they are not given the priority they deserve in the university sector and that needs to change. There is a growing need for well run, well-funded engagement, skills development and wellbeing programmes. Organisations like Universities UK and other industry bodies need to play their part in pushing harder to get universities to really invest in these and use them as a differentiator. After all, it is what makes one university offering better than another that will fill places, and if location is no longer a factor in that choice then universities need to look at what else they can offer to potential students. The great thing here is that support and advancement can be provided not only by interpersonal face to face interventions but also well-designed digital tools for sharing knowledge and support information. There is much readily consumable content available across various types of digital media that can enable capability building, targeted challenge and warm encouragement.

Change is coming

It is a sad fact that some universities won’t survive this change as student numbers inevitably fall. People-centric digital transformation and organisational change will become a cornerstone for those that do keep going, with investment in digital platforms that offer what today’s students really want, standing out above others.

Disruption to the sector is taking place now. Change is coming and I anticipate that there will be a huge transformation of the sector over the next 5 years.