Sunday, May 26, 2019

New models for higher education in rural areas

UHI Inverness campus. CC BY-SA Alastair Creelman
I am currently working in a Swedish project (Nya vägar - information in Swedish) that is investigating new paths to higher education for all who live in rural and sparsely populated areas. The problem today is that people move away from rural areas to study and very seldom return. This means that local businesses find it increasingly hard to find qualified staff and the local authorities also have difficulties finding teachers and health care staff. Even if there are many online courses and degree programmes available from Swedish universities, the range is nowhere near as wide as that offered on campus and so the brain drain continues. Some larger local authorities have set up local campuses or learning centres that try to match the needs of the local private and public sector with the courses and programmes offered by the higher education institutions. They also offer a meeting place as well as support and guidance to students and this has proved crucial to the completion rates of degree programmes. For many small local authorities the ability to access higher education without having to move from home is a simple matter of survival. Without this the population will dwindle and it will be difficult to maintain services. Our project aims to answer the following questions:
  • How can we provide higher education to all, wherever they live? 
  • How can we collaborate to optimize and assure the quality of the individual’s study situation? 
  • What can municipalities and other key actors do to create a local context that favors access to higher education? 
  • What is the role of industry and the public sector (employers)? 
  • What is required from the HE sector to increase access to HE for individuals and groups far from university sites? 
  • How can all actors collaborate to strengthen skills supply and life-long learning throughout the country?
UHI Inverness campus
One university that seems to have come a long way to answering these questions is the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in Scotland and this week we paid them a visit to learn more about their unique approach to offering higher and further education to students spread over a large and sparsely populated region. Their development has been impressive and rapid; established in 1992, becoming a higher education institution in 2001 and a full university in 2011. Previously all universities in Scotland were concentrated in a central corridor between Glasgow and Aberdeen with nothing to the north and west; well over half of the country's area. UHI identifies strongly with its region aiming to be “locally based, regional in structure and have national and international reach.” They do this in an original way since the university's physical presence is in the form of a network of 13 colleges and 70 learning centres spread all over a region considerably larger than Belgium. Each college is an autonomous organisation with bilateral agreements with UHI, what they call a collegiate federal model. The teachers and researchers are based at the colleges, each of which has its own specialities and local focus, but the students can study most programmes from their nearest college or even learning centre and all have a personal academic tutor. The university faculties and support units operate horizontally in a matrix organisation. Then there are over 70 learning centres in villages, community centres, supported directly by UHI but fully rooted in the local communities. UHI is also a bilingual university with all information and support available in both English and Gaelic though this does not cover the education provided and although there are many courses in Gaelic, the vast majority of the education provided is in English.

What is particularly interesting about UHI is the fact that so many of its courses are accessible whether you study at college, a learning centre or from home and this enables people to access higher education wherever they live and don't need to leave their community. They proudly claim that students have access to about 30 degree programmes within a 30 mile radius of home (distance to nearest learning centre or partner college). Not all courses are available everywhere but as many as possible. Students work from home and come to their learning centre and local college when necessary. All students have a personal academic tutor, usually based at their nearest college. Most courses have students who study from different locations and the boundaries between campus and distance (whatever that means) seem to have been erased.

The same applies for the teachers who can be based at a college or run their courses from small remote learning centres. We met one such teacher who teaches music and even runs week-long virtual music residencies from her base on the tiny island of Benbecula. The use of digital media is of course central to everything that UHI does. A Cisco video-conferencing system links all nodes in the network and UHI is biggest user of video conferencing in Europe. It is therefore essential for all staff to be proficient in using digital media.

For me the most interesting aspect of the university's work is its Learning and Teaching Academy (LTA) that supports the professional development of all teaching staff with a particular emphasis on the effective use of digital media. An integral part of their strategy is ALPINE (Accredited Learning, Professional development and Innovation in Education), a framework that offers professional development leading to official recognition in terms of fellowships of the UK Higher Education Academy (HEA). Staff are expected to first become associate fellows and then progress to full fellowships with the option of later becoming senior fellows. Qualification involves compiling a portfolio of learning resources, course plans and digital courseware with the amount and nature of evidence depending on the level of fellowship. Teachers are encouraged to create digital portfolios of their teaching material for recognition. The development of digital skills is integrated into all professional development but comes into focus in activities such as an annual Digital Education Week, mentorships and regular lunchtime webinars. In addition, there are seminar days involving student representatives and teaching staff to discuss for example implementation of learning analytics, course design, curriculum development etc.

Effective use of the learning management system (at present moving from Blackboard to Brightspace) is supported by their benchmarks for the use of technology in learning and teaching that maps teaching and learning criteria with functions in the LMS and offers best practice examples. This is done in terms of their 3E framework: enhance, extend and empower.

The benchmarks and associated guidance and exemplars defined and provided here are aligned with the university’s Learning and Teaching Enhancement Strategy, and will enable the embedding of the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Values in how we use the learning environment and other technologies to support learning, teaching and assessment.

Digital scholarship in terms of sharing scholarly practice and increasing research visibility is encouraged through schemes such as an annual fund to encourage research or study that must result in a paper submission to a journal as well as arranging a workshop or webinar. Three day writing retreats are arranged to help staff write their first scientific papers and this includes adjuncts and educational technologists.

Finally there is a clear strategy for openness, working towards a policy of open as default. A lot of course material is already open and they are planning to develop open textbooks and have joined the OERu partnership where they will offer open courses and validation of other partners' open courses.

I see a clear need for a model like this in Sweden, either by existing institutions in partnership or by a new institution. The key is that there is a university that focuses on providing inclusive and flexible higher education for all, no matter where they live, and sees "distance" as no object and the pedagogical use of digital media as default. The technology and methods already exist, what is often lacking is the will to change.

Finally my thanks to everyone at UHI for their hospitality and excellent discussions.

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