Many UK universities have embraced a blend of online and on-campus teaching as the government has eased social distancing restrictions. While most still hope to get things ‘back to normal’ as soon as it’s safe to do so, the wider sector is also asking itself a thought-provoking question: even if we can go back to normal, should we?
Having navigated the difficulty and seismic impacts of a global pandemic, including levels of disruption that will have unknown consequences for a whole generation’s education; we have also been given the opportunity to reflect and positively reimagine what we, and future learners, really want from a university education.
Pivoting towards accessibility and the lifelong learner’s career needs
The dramatic pivot from a campus model to scaled online learning, as the delivery model for the core academic experience, has been challenging across the board and an incredible testament to the dynamism higher education institutes (HEIs) have demonstrated under pressure. Having come through a really challenging 18 months, the indications are that a digital-first approach to education is opening new doors for academics and students all over the world, proliferating greater choice and a deeper engagement, especially with more diverse learners’ motivations. The products, pathways and qualifications universities offer are in more demand than ever, and post-COVID, the opportunity to radically transform access via digital is also more tangible than ever.
Having come through a really challenging 18 months, the indications are that a digital-first approach to education is opening new doors for academics and students all over the world, proliferating greater choice and a deeper engagement, especially with more diverse learners’ motivations
According to recent research, educators believe online learning has increased student engagement and independence. Learners signal optimism towards an increasingly digitised education in the long-term – FutureLearn’s The Future of Learning report found that 50% of UK adults believe online learning can provide similar benefits to formal education; and the Office for Student’s Digital Teaching and Learning Review published earlier this year gives confidence that a permanent shift has occurred.
The momentum behind blended modes of learning is playing out within core and supplementary topic areas eg. digital learning’s flexibility, personalisation and scale can be used for core modules and supplementary extra-curricular areas such as ‘how to learn’ more effectively, career decision-making and workplace-ready job skills – the latter being more urgently required than ever given the economic backdrop of unemployment and the in-demand skills gap.
Millions of students and professionals have had their career path disrupted and we must do more to help them connect with the tools they need to succeed in a rapidly-evolving, digitally-focused jobs market. During the pandemic, for example, FutureLearn saw an almost 200% increase in new female learners and, at the same time, an almost 350% uplift in enrolments on tech and coding courses. We’ve also seen a wider range of organisations, from City & Guilds to The Big Issue, moving into the online learning space in order to bring those vital tools to learners who have experienced the most disruption.
The rise of alternative, digitised educational paths
The sector as a whole has certainly been forced to take notice of formerly overlooked opportunities for digital strategies that can encourage learning in a way that’s much more suited to tomorrow’s learner and the changing economy. Universities have generally been quicker to embrace digital solutions within their existing teaching models, adapting core portfolios of existing degrees to offer the flexibility, accessibility and career-led content learners need. FutureLearn has seen partners worldwide – from the University of Kent in the UK, to Monash and Deakin University in Australia, and the University of Michigan in the US – speedily adapting to create products such as micro-credentials, on-demand courses, and always-on, skills-based subscription learning models like the FutureLearn ExpertTrack, which was built especially with the younger generation of career-changing learners in mind.
We’re also witnessing far more industry players entering the higher and adult education world than previously – the Dyson Institute is just one example; and at FutureLearn, companies like Xero, Salesforce and Tableau are partnering with institutes like Coventry University to create learning opportunities that have a direct impact on employability.
In the near future we can expect to see ever more inventive and alternative digital offerings. This can only be a benefit in assisting to widen the reach and access to HEI products. Such innovative online products can act as an enabler: by providing on-demand services that fit around the realities of people’s post-pandemic lives, it’s hoped that education can be more flexible and suited to day-to-day life.
Given the unprecedented pace of technological change we witness every day, it’s widely predicted that people will have multiple careers in their lifetime, needing to retrain and reskill on a routine basis. The Future of Learning report, for example, found that 21% of UK working age adults do not expect to be working in the same industry by 2030, with the COVID-19 pandemic making almost one in 10 rethink their career paths entirely.
The current student population and those already in work can, and do, expect to require booster courses and learning interventions to equip them to succeed in the job market of the future
There is therefore an increasing need for opportunities and mechanisms to augment the skillset of graduates, both during and after study. The current student population and those already in work can, and do, expect to require booster courses and learning interventions to equip them to succeed in the job market of the future.
A new wave of employability-led HE qualifications
In parallel, we see a reversion to more job-focused learning models; away from the degree as a gateway product. Industry-based qualifications are on the rise; here in the UK we see a resurgence in the popularity of apprenticeships due to the fact that apprentices can both learn and earn on the job. They are especially popular amongst employers as they enable them to recruit a wider pool of diverse people from a wider range of backgrounds, with different skillsets and approaches to the world.
The OU’s apprenticeship programmes are playing a crucial role in helping employers face the challenges of the pandemic and plan for the future whilst helping to address skills gaps in key areas, including digital, management, leadership, social work, policing and healthcare. The OU teaching model is a blended one, with world-renowned online teaching combined with specialist face-to-face tutor support.
The flexibility to combine quality digital learning with practical on-the-job experience is at the heart of this progressive opportunity. Many OU apprentices can study close to home and gain the qualification flexibly, thanks to quality, supported, distance learning.
The movement continues to accelerate. Building on the higher and degree apprenticeships schemes, the UK government’s Skills for Jobs White Paper published in January this year, heralds another alternative to the traditional academic degree in England: Higher Technical Qualifications. These are designed to be one and two-year programmes aimed at meeting the skills shortages of specific occupations just below degree level.
However, a need to tackle a lag in productivity growth and a tighter focus on the employer should not mean qualifications have to fit a linear straight jacket. Learning is not just for the years after you leave school. It’s possible to allow learners to create their own personalised selection of educational products, picking and choosing modules that flexibly combine their skillset requirements and interests, blending the vocational and the academic approach to build a portfolio of practical and theoretical learning. The OU’s open certificates, diplomas and degrees illustrates how this can be done and gives a blueprint for other HEIs to follow.
Digital education products are providing an avenue for continuous lifelong learning, adding learning ‘booster shots’ and accessible, flexible avenues for retraining and reskilling, helping learners break free of the dominance of a degree acquired at a young age
Overall in 2021, the focus of HEIs is less on the critical years between 18 to 22 years old, and the campus experience, and more on the future of learning. Digital education products are providing an avenue for continuous lifelong learning, adding learning ‘booster shots’ and accessible, flexible avenues for retraining and reskilling, helping learners break free of the dominance of a degree acquired at a young age. HEIs see the shift and understand the part they can play in this, understanding that at whatever age and at whichever stage in their career that learners have continuous needs and desires to keep on learning.
The demise of a job for life and accelerated industrial progress is putting more and more pressure on the individual to keep acquiring skills in on-demand, growing job areas. It’s here that HEIs have a critical role to play, supporting modular offerings in an accessible digital environment. Their experience in how to deliver distance learning online during the pandemic, and the needs and anxieties of their own students as they face a tough job market post COVID-19, have shown them first-hand the need for this approach, with many educational leaders now re-imagining the university for 2021.
We’ve learned what’s possible through our hasty dive into the digital world for the day-to-day delivery because of the pandemic. While that may have been painful, the way we’re learning and teaching now must surely spark our imagination and creativity for how we can operate better in the future.
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