15 Jan 2021 UUKi publications
15 Jan 2021 UUKi publications
Last updated on Wednesday 20 Apr 2022 on 11:51am
How can we manage transnational education exports in a world in which students expect more flexible teaching and learning options than ever?
Transnational online higher education can widen access to education globally, but this mode of education comes with its own set of challenges.
Our 2021 report ‘Building the global reputation and delivery of UK transnational online higher education’ estimated that, at the height of the pandemic, there could have been in excess of 400,000 students studying UK higher education programmes digitally across borders.
At the Ahead by Bett exhibition on 25 March 2022, a roundtable of higher education and education technology experts explored this topic from a policy level through to a practical level.
Through the discussion, we hoped to contribute to the UK higher education sector’s debate on developing and communicating a narrative of quality digital education that supports access to higher education globally. This article collects feedback provided from the discussions.
The discussion focussed on how the higher education sector can collaborate to benefit from opportunities and overcome challenges in transnational online learning.
A common thread was the challenge of communicating the value of transnational online learning to stakeholders.
The roundtable was moderated by Professor Helen O’Sullivan, Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Chester.
Discussions were facilitated by:
Our report signalled measurement challenges related to the formal collection of data related to higher level distance learning activity, with no existing data relating specifically to distance learning courses and few sector publications on the global distance learning market.
The report recommended addressing gaps in data collection related to student profiles, student experience, student outcomes (especially employment outcomes), the financial value of transnational digital learning and information on employers’ views of online learning.
The session at Ahead by Bett built on the report’s findings, pointing at the complexity of comprehensive coverage, data definitions and categorisation (e.g. in cases of hybrid learning). The questions need to be more clearly defined, particularly what is it that the UK higher education sector is looking to measure and define.
Participants questioned whether measurement of digital learning across borders was particularly challenging. Cultural, legal, economic and social context mediate the way student experience and graduate outcomes are measured (e.g. whether online provision is recognised in a specific jurisdiction).
Some specificities of measuring distance learning across borders were raised, particularly recognition of degrees (i.e. student profiles, experience and outcomes) and value for money of pursuing an online education.
Participants concluded that measurement of online transnational higher education needs to take into account whether this type of provision is distinctive from the typically measured full-time on-site provision, with its own set of advantages and challenges, and this needs to be acknowledged by stakeholders including university leaders, government, regulatory authorities and data collection agencies.
Our report identified surface-level perceptions of quality as a significant barrier to the recognition of online learning. The session at Ahead by Bett considered different measures that could bring leverage to enhancing quality, and should therefore be prioritised.
Participants identified the combination of effective learning design exploiting the benefits of different technological platforms and use of learning analytics as a powerful platform for quality. Multiple systems can be made to work simultaneously as long as they provide a seamless journey from a student’s perspective.
Quality can be mediated by learning analytics, not as a surveillance system, but to build opportunities to drive programme design as well as support personalised learning journeys. Predictive analytics could also be skilfully utilised, provided appropriate data is collected. The group noted that reliable analytics are more difficult to implement in blended contexts.
The group noted research showing that students prefer a blend of online and onsite provision, and synchronous and asynchronous teaching. New forms of delivery through Artificial Intelligence, Virtual and Enhanced Reality extend reach in technical disciplines, but not all learners derive the same benefits from such tools.
Participants concluded that the collective narrative around the quality of online provision needs to improve. The commonplace dichotomy between online/distance and onsite should be challenged, emphasising (and proving) that while there are distinctive student experiences, the quality and standards remain consistent whatever the mode and location of study.
Our report found that often the institutional motivation for undertaking online delivery is to facilitate access to UK higher education to students who would otherwise not be participating in existing onsite provision and who are not able to participate in mobility-based international education.
It was noted that, as the levelling up agenda in England provides an opportunity for UK Government investment in closing the gap in access to technology for higher education, in global settings the focus must be put on local resources and infrastructure and diversifying the delivery channels, tailored to context.
The group questioned whether access to online education replicates the challenges of access to a higher education, with its complex set of socioeconomic drivers. The cost of quality online education can be high, and there is a trade-off between standards, access and accessibility that needs to be addressed.
A strategy for access needs to take into account the demographic profile and location of students, a translation online of the onsite student experience may not be what students are seeking.
The role of technology was highlighted as an enabler, but not the ultimate solution to access. The distinction between accessibility, which can be mediated through technology, and access, inscribed in broader social, economic and political frameworks needs to be made explicit.
The group concluded that in order to enhance access, institutions need to know students’ ambitions and goals, and meet them in the students’ own terms. An online education needs to reimagine rather than replicate, create an educationally appropriate experience, rather than an equivalent experience to onsite learning.
We would like to express our gratitude to the leads and participants in the roundtable discussions, and to Ahead by Bett for providing a platform for these discussions to be held.