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Could borderless education help improve the student experience at home?

The increase in transnational education programmes presents challenges for institutions expanding their geographical boundaries, but it also gets us to think about the impact of technology on the student experience back home.
This article is more than 4 years old

Esther Wilkinson is Head of International at Jisc. 

The topic of ‘borderless education’ has amassed popularity in the wake of Brexit speculations regarding the sustainability of UK HE. And it’s not all talk. UCAS figures from 2016-2017 already show a 7 percent decrease in applications from EU students, so there could be a recruitment challenge ahead, if current levels of financing are sought. Perhaps part of the solution, and a fresh challenge too, is for us to think outside the box, as well as beyond our borders.

Jisc has set up a transnational education (TNE) programme to support our member universities with established and developing TNE activities, and commissioned the Observatory on Borderless Education to survey the sector and understand current and future requirements. From the findings, and capitalising upon our expertise in running the Janet network and delivering deals in publishing, there’s a lot of knowledge that translates to global opportunity as demonstrated by the Department for International Trade in their move to establish a TNE sector group, strengthening the UK’s position in this growing field.

And it’s a savvy move – with funding not set to increase by inflation, and the government stance on student visas, models of provision may need to drastically change. HEPI‘s report into the subject predicted that as many as 20,000 potential students could be put off studying in the UK as a result of visa restrictions.

Whatever the cause, we are only likely to see further internationalisation of the UK HE market as technological possibilities increase. All over the world, technology already enables education despite geographical barriers, but how does this relate to the student experience, and how can UK campuses also benefit?

The technology landscape

The days when it might have seemed revolutionary to be presenting a MOOC (massive, open online course) to students in China are over–this is now every day practice and access to UK HE, is on a different scale; In the biggest markets for UK TNE (including Malaysia, China and Singapore), online distance education constitutes 52 per cent of all provision.

Students need to be able to use virtual learning environments (VLEs), and access course materials in real time, and not be waiting for better bandwidth out of hours or during the night – and this access needs to be both on and off campus, which Jisc have been facilitating for many institutions, including Queen Mary’s partnerships in China.

When it comes to delivering TNE, seamless takes on a new meaning. Combining branch and onshore campuses, with blended learning, VLEs and considerations such as video conferencing for tutorials requires some thinking, and a new set of skills in planning the technological infrastructure for students of 2018, and beyond.

Changing expectations

Let’s put our students first – their opinions, and their experience count more and more – wherever they’re based, from the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus to Ningbo, to back home, Wi-Fi available across campus is no longer a nicety but a necessity to how students learn and engage.

Raegan Hiles is right to raise the importance of student experience in satellite campuses – it’s the acid-test to whether improved connectivity or virtual learning environments are in fact giving students the education they’re looking for – a 360 degree experience.

We know from our research and conversations with universities that successful online learners require a particular set of skills and attitudes, some of which may be difficult for those new to higher education and from non-traditional backgrounds to develop. TNE gives us a focus to review these skills and improve how we support students wherever they’re based.

Our own Student Digital Experience tracker of 20,000 students gave some mixed messages about how technology supports today’s learners:80% of online learners agree that learning with technology means that they can fit learning into their life; and 85% that it makes them more independent, but only 20% feel connected with tutors, and 27% with other learners.  So there are considerations here for staff in both UK based and TNE branch campuses in how technology helps us deliver against student expectations both now, and in the future.

On home soil

Again, from the student tracker we have found it is crucial that providers of online learning prepare online learners to study online. It might sound obvious, but what are the practices, expectations and good habits they need?  Teaching responsively, with consideration to learners’ different motivations, interests, learning histories and resources is vital to address the barriers to success for specific groups of learners, and relevant to planning both TNE programmes and those taught on UK campuses.

At the launch of the Higher Education Commission’s fifth inquiry, Paul Feldman outlined some great examples of where technology is increasing access to higher education courses back in the UK. One example being Micro campuses, a form of technology enhanced learning to have received deserved attention; wholly digital in their provision, they are creating an on-campus feel to courses. It’s definitely possible, technology gives us these tools, but for some there’s a debate to be had about whether it’s desirable, too.

There are countless examples of a universities effectively integrating digital tools within courses producing graduates who are workplace ready and by design, digitally literate. Of course, higher education is so much more that a conveyor belt to employment, but when student experience has such a defining role, we can’t afford to be complacent about the acquisition of digital skills for a global employment market.

As Paul Gallagher, assistant director of applications at Queen Mary’s University of London said, ‘we needed a consistent story’ – from reliable, global connectivity, a reliable VLE can become the bedrock of a strong student experience. We’ve seen the shift in the use of our network from its creation as a corridor for research collaboration, to a network secure enough to stream surgery, live from the other side of globe, for medical students who would otherwise be unable to train in these skills. Where technology leads, expectations will follow.

Universities are taking increasing advantage of borderless education to extend their portfolios, through technology (It was recently reported that the UK’s offshore activity is growing at five times the rate of students coming to the UK). So let’s also use our technological expertise of providing borderless education to shape and improve how we deliver technology enhanced learning, for homegrown talent, too.

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