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Universities hesitate to provide online courses



British universities are taking a cautious approach to online courses, allowing international rivals to saturate the market, according to a new report.

Research for Digital leadership in HE, published by university technology provider Jisc and higher education IT organisation Ucisa, found that while technologists are keen on developing online courses, others in British higher education do not take them seriously.

As a result, overseas institutions such as US universities including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have taken the lead in providing such courses. The result is that British students can now get certificates and degrees from globally recognised universities online, often more cheaply than they could by attending a UK institution.

Some interviewed for the report said that the initial costs of setting up online courses, along with working out how business and finance processes would work, act as a deterrent.

“If we’re going to do something like that, we need to do it properly and it’s just too expensive a task for us in the short term,” said John Beaver, director of IT services at Bath Spa University.

Mental health support

However, the report notes that ‘presential’ courses that require someone to attend in person give access to a university’s social experience, which among other things can support students’ mental health.

A survey of 50 Ucisa members in September 2018 for the report found that organisational culture was by far the biggest barrier to successful digital delivery, with 70% of respondents mentioning this, followed by finance, mentioned by 48%.

Academics and managers were seen as least likely to embrace digital work, with no respondents thinking academics had ‘a great deal’ of embedded digital thinking and practice  and just 9% thinking this was true of leadership teams. This rose to 59% for university librarians, many of whom manage extensive digital resources as well as printed titles.

“Universities generally operate as multiple SMEs, so each academic member of staff or team is very focused on their subject area, and they see themselves as operating very much in digital transformation within the institution,” says Neil Williams, IT director at the University of Derby, in the report. We generally find it difficult to shift staff onto new ways of working, and academic staff are particularly hard to do so.”

He adds that IT services will need to work on influencing the rest of the organisation, providing business advice and consultancy rather than just technical skills.

“Innovation must have a purpose, and it is important to take a 'whole campus' approach to a digital strategy before implementing new tools; technology initiatives work much better when aligned with an organisation’s business and teaching and learning strategy,” said Josh Fry, director of cloud at Jisc.

“Digital leaders in HE must work out how ‘disruptive’ technologies can be introduced into methods of working in a way that encourages engagement from academic and support staff.”


Image of University of Derby’s Devonshire campus building in Buxton: Ian Parkes @Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

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