Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Distance no object – reflections on a study visit to Scotland

Inverness castle and River Ness
Today’s educational technology has the potential to offer education to all. Net-based learning at its best can offer levels of interactivity and collaboration unthinkable only a few years ago and educators are having to revise their ideas of online learning as being largely instructivist self-study. Courses can be offered completely online, face-to-face or in blended or hybrid solutions and distance is becoming less of a issue, at least in technical terms. However attitudes change more slowly than technology and there is still a perceived divide between campus and distance that is preventing many institutions from fully integrating technology and offering truly flexible education where distance is no object.

Last week I saw some interesting and inspiring examples on this theme when I was invited as a guest on a study trip to various Scottish educational organisations with a delegation from the Danish (FLUID) and Norwegian (FuN) associations for flexible learning. I very seldom get the chance to visit my homeland in a professional role so it was an interesting experience to see things from two perspectives; as a native and an international visitor. The delegation consisted of representatives from a wide range of educational institutions: universities, vocational and online training providers, local authorities and consultancies. In only three days we met seven organisations in four cities from Glasgow to Inverness via Edinburgh and Perth.

Here are some of my impressions and reflections on the main themes of the visit.

Work-based learning
Glasgow Caledonian University
The integration of higher education into the workplace is a major global trend, especially at master’s level where students are more independent and able to apply what they learn directly in the work environment. Glasgow Caledonian University is making an impressive mark in this arena with its Scottish Centre for Work Based Learning. The centre designs and delivers tailor-made university programmes for professionals in cooperation with companies. Many of the students applying for these programmes have relevant practical experience and in-company training certificates and need to have these skills recognized and accredited. The unit specialises in the recognition of prior learning for gaining entry to courses and students can study at for a wide range of qualifications up to MSc.

Glasgow Caledonian is the only University in Scotland to offer the opportunity to gain awards by work based learning from Higher Education Certificate through to full MSc. This is achieved by using academic models and theories to frame, analyse and solve real work based problems. We offer these programmes on an individual, group and company basis and although all of these differ to some extent they share the notion that the workplace is the site of knowledge creation and that academic and work based knowledge can be integrated to enrich both the workplace and the University.

The traditional campus concept of university studies is being eroded and augmented to include a wide variety of learning arenas that include the workplace. As this happens universities need to work intensively with developing new methods to validate prior learning and practical skills rather than solely basing admission on formal qualifications. University is wherever you work.

Skills development
At the other end of the scale we visited Skills Development Scotland, a national government agency who provide career and training advice and guidance for young people leaving school with a particular focus on those with few or no formal qualifications. The Scottish government guarantees everyone between 16 and 19 a place on some kind of education or training and SDS offer a range of services both face-to-face and online to help young people take charge of their own future. Via a dedicated online guidance and self-help service, My world of work, young people can search for training opportunities, apprenticeships and courses in a variety of forms, including online training. We also met representatives of Scottish Union Learning, an umbrella organisation that funds education and training for union members, sometimes in cooperation with employers but often outside working hours. This type of training is aimed at improving basic skills but is increasingly offered online given the difficulties of arranging face-to-face training in some industries.

Online learning in this area is still not completely mainstream but its further development is key to making education and training accessible to all. Face-to-face training normally requires a critical mass of students before it can be offered and many people today miss out on training opportunities because they live in the wrong place and are unable to travel to where the training is based. Online delivery means that training is more accessible regardless of location but for many there is a high threshold; they simply lack the digital and study skills to benefit from this form of training. That’s why we need more local support for online learning, learning centres or libraries where people can get practical support and encouragement.

MOOCs as a catalyst for course development
Discussing MOOCs in Edinburgh
It was particularly interesting to visit the University of Edinburgh since I graduated from there in 1980 and our meeting took place in the same building as many of my undergraduate classes and tutorials way back in the seventies. Edinburgh has attracted considerable global interest in its approach to MOOCs with 23 courses so far in two different consortia: Coursera and the UK-based FutureLearn. Incredibly these MOOCs have attracted almost one million people and even if that does not translate into as many course completions it still represents an unprecedented outreach, enhancing the university’s reputation and stimulating the further development of online learning at the university as a whole. They have carefully monitored the courses and have produced detailed reports and analysis that have been widely referred to by researchers and commentators in the field.

The visit further confirmed my conviction that real change in the use of technology in education can only happen when the enthusiasm and energy of faculty pioneers is met by a genuine interest from the top with serious strategies and objectives. When the management clearly understand the issues and creates favourable conditions for innovation and experimentation, as at Edinburgh, things start happening. In this case there was £5 million central strategic funding dedicated to developing online learning, focusing at present on MOOCs and the development of online master’s programmes.

Producing successful MOOCs has stimulated faculty to start looking more carefully at their traditional offerings and there is now a genuine interest to integrate technology into mainstream courses that was missing before. A vital factor behind this success has been that the initiative to start developing a MOOC comes from engaged faculty rather than management asking them to develop a course. A sense of ownership is essential for success and sustainability and this cannot be created when the initiative comes from above. Teachers who want to start a course get central support but they must take charge of the project.

Mainstreaming blended learning

Perth College, one of the UHI campuses
I have long been an admirer of the unique approach of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) to providing university education to students in the sparsely-populated north and west of Scotland. The university is a federation of 13 partner colleges spread around the highlands and islands, each with their own focus areas, providing different mixes of higher and further education as well as hosting university research centres. What impresses me most is that they have succeeded in fully integrating technology into all aspects of the university and the campus/distance distinction is becoming largely irrelevant. Nobody is really a distance student. Students enrol at their nearest college even if the course is run from another college in the UHI federation. Students can therefore study from their home area with their base college providing administrative, technical and certain academic support and the teachers available online. UHI’s geographic range means that digital is central to the whole operation.

UHI Executive Office, Inverness
Another impressive feature at UHI is their Learning and Teaching Academy which offers academic, pedagogical and professional development to faculty. Digital skills are integral to staff development and therefore integrated into all activities. An internal fellowship scheme offers recognition for good teaching and innovative practice and to qualify for a fellowship award a teacher is required to present an e-portfolio of work in the form of digital resources (films, podcasts, articles, course modules etc). Requiring the inclusion of digital material for professional recognition reinforces the central role of technology in the university.

Moving online learning from optional extra to recognised mainstream practice demands understanding and active support from the top management. Technology is an enabler that can widen the reach of education and can help to unite students no matter where they are based. Distance is no longer a handicap and online learning is not a "second best" option. When a university can offer courses to students in many locations using a variety of learning arenas and with both online and face-to-face support available to all we can truly say that distance is no longer an issue.

Read more reflections from this visit on the Flexible Learning Norway website, Look to Scotland.

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