The Open University is a world leader in distance learning. Regarded as Britain’s major e-learning institution, the OU has developed technology to increase access to education on a global scale, as part of the stated mission to be ‘open to all people, places, methods and ideas’. We are now seeing wider traction for technological solutions to education delivery. In a recent report from the Institute of Directors, online courses are recognised as a key tool in increasing access to education.
An evolving model
As technology advances, the potential for online learning thrives and evolves. Over its own existence, the OU has accommodated different forms of education technology and been a pioneer of utilising technology in distance education.
Most recently, the OU is leading in the field of learning analytics, the educational application of web analytics aimed at learner profiling. Through analysis of a student’s history of engaging on learning platforms, instructors can discern who needs extra support. The ability to predict behaviour enables early, targeted interventions, ensuring that a course meets the needs of different learners, and bringing the sophistication of personal tutoring to thousands.
Digital technologies have enabled a new approach to delivering education at scale. FutureLearn, the UK’s first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform, was created by the OU and has hosted over 3.5 million learners since its launch in 2013, during which time learners have taken more than six million courses. People use FutureLearn in almost every country in the world, with learners from over 200 countries and territories.
Through ongoing delivery of online education, the OU has been able to engage with the question of scale, investigating which pedagogies improve when large numbers of people are involved. MOOCs can act as a giant laboratory for testing the new methods of teaching, learning and assessment that are possible through technology. The advantages of operating at scale are clear, as analysis of the ways in which many thousands of people are learning online is already starting to influence the design of courses. Learning design uses data gleaned from tracking learning activities to support the design of a particular course. This might include providing evidence for the use of particular activities and the order in which they take place.
Open to all
The importance of education technology to The Open University is that it enables us to achieve our goal of being open to all, and this approach is being recognised as a crucial step in the development of education for the future.
The report from the Institute of Directors (IoD) calls for a move to continuous lifelong learning, delivered flexibly to a wider proportion of people through technology. In the UK, the level of skills shortages has reached a level at which traditional delivery of training is struggling to respond. As opposed to more traditional forms of education delivery, the technological developments in training enable educational institutions to deliver material of a consistently high quality at scale.
At The Open University, our OpenLearn site includes over 8,000 study hours of free informal learning materials which have reached more than 40 million people. There are now a total number of 835 different modules on OpenLearn, highlighting the breadth of content available. More recently, the OU’s free course material has been published on iTunes U, which recording almost 70 million downloads, at a rate of 46,154 downloads per week.
Increasingly, we are seeing international spread in the people accessing this material. Indeed only 11 per cent of downloads from the iTunes U site in 2014/15 were from the UK, demonstrating the global interest in engaging, open educational resources. The OU also recognises the importance of improving formal distance learning provision globally and works with higher education institutions around the world, sharing expertise in education technology and pedagogy. This is particularly relevant in India, where the OU has partnerships with local education institutions and universities, as the government is making efforts to provide university education to an additional 14 million students by 2020. The OU’s distance learning capabilities showcase the role education technology has to play in reaching students at scale.
Technological education for a technological age
As technology continues to transform the workplace and economy, it becomes even more crucial to the education system. Initiatives such as OpenLearn aim to provide individuals with the resources to capitalise on informal learning and to move from informal to formal opportunities. Encouraging more students to make this journey enables them to make the most of the high quality formal education that distance education can offer, bringing vital skills to ever greater numbers.
In addition, the impact of learning analytics is to make educational opportunities far more effective, adapting to individual learners to impart knowledge and skills aligned to their own requirements. Skills training can become far more effective when learning analytics helps to cater for individual needs.
The Institute of Directors’ recent report on the challenges facing the education system recognises that the pace of change in technologies such as automation is changing skills requirements around the globe, and is subsequently making stringent demands on the education system. As such, the impact that education technology can have on the skills and capabilities of the global population is increasingly relevant, and it is clear that developments in these technologies must form part of our response to the new skills paradigm.