If we get it right, digital and online learning will change the world

Simone Buitendijk calls on the higher education sector to consider where online and digital could be superior in achieving universities’ mission to change the world through education and research.

Simone Buitendijk is vice chancellor of the University of Leeds.

I first started understanding the power of online delivery of university education almost a decade ago, in the early days of lecture capture and amid the rise of platforms such as Coursera, FutureLearn and EdX. The possibility of bringing high quality research-led learning literally to the entire world was unbelievably exciting. And it still is.

The global need for university education, both for people just out of secondary education and those already in jobs, is huge. Existing universities cannot come anywhere close to meeting that demand through the traditional means of on-campus teaching and on-campus continuing professional development.

Taking digital transformation global

In only a decade, both the quality and the scale of what can be offered online have grown dramatically due to the advance of digital technology. I believe it is time that universities, especially those in the Global North, which have more resources than colleagues in the Global South, start investing serious time and energy into changing the world through large scale research-led, collaborative, online teaching and research.

If online courses of high quality and global relevance are created by research-intensive universities from high income countries together with those from low and middle income countries, complementary perspectives can be brought to bear on challenges such as those embodied in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Students from high income countries can learn from research-led solutions as used in low and middle income countries, and reverse innovation can go hand-in-hand with what I like to call “reverse education”.

Immersive technology and simulation make the research and teaching possibilities even more vast. For example, in an online space, a trip into a volcano or an area struck by natural disaster is entirely possible, where it may be far too dangerous or prohibitively expensive in real life.

Networks of universities can work together online to tackle important research themes that also inspire the online, research-led teaching they carry out together. Students in online degree programmes can contribute to the combined research knowledge base.

In this mode, international exchange and collaborative research will not lead to large numbers of people travelling and relocating, since most of the collaborative work can be carried out in a high-quality online space. The carbon footprint will be much reduced, and so will the risk of brain drain from low and middle income countries, which occurs when talented researchers choose to stay abroad.

Transforming learning and teaching

Digital collaboration and learning – done well – benefit the individual student. When students come together online from all over the world and bring their own professional and personal experiences into the virtual classroom, a global learning environment can be created that could never be replicated in regular, on-campus classrooms.

The students might be just out of school or they might be more experienced and in jobs – there is no reason why these groups can not learn together. On-campus students can also learn and work together with other students on campuses in a different part of the world. Students who want the university experience for much more than just the in-classroom learning will keep coming to our bricks and mortar campuses, but their in-classroom experience will be richer thanks to digital and online innovation.

Some online students and learners will receive formal, recognised degrees at the end of their learning journey, but others will be equally happy with a series of completed and certified modules that can be used to demonstrate they acquired new skills. Increasingly, employers recognise those certificates.

Some of those modules, especially if for credit, can be used towards gaining a formal degree at some later stage. Business leaders can help teach relevant modules, together with university lecturers, and make the cutting-edge knowledge even more relevant, applicable and right up to date.

Online learning, in small groups, with a high level of activity and input by the students, with group work and in-session quizzes and tests, can be a highly rewarding, effective and “human” learning experience – far superior to in-person lectures. Teachers can get a real-time impression of what students understand, based on the digital analysis of their in-session answers. In more traditional teaching, that type of information is available only after formal assessments and exams.

Don’t put up with passivity

The right use of digital innovation in the classroom “forces” students to engage and can speed up the much-needed change towards more active learning and evidence-based teaching. On-campus students should, in my opinion, no longer put up with getting most of their teaching from lectures. Although lectures, if delivered expertly and by charismatic teachers, can be inspiring, knowledge does not get retained effectively, since that requires active engagement with the material.

In active learning sessions, teachers who are perhaps more shy or less confident than “star” lecturers, will generate very good learning outcomes – it is the actual content of the work that determines the learning, not the teacher’s charisma and personality.

What’s more, students from non-traditional backgrounds thrive in active learning environments, because their lived experiences and different insights are an asset to the group process, and the interactive nature of the learning environment enhances the sense of belonging.

Let me be clear – high quality online delivery is more expensive than regular lectures for on-campus students. It is not a way for universities to save money, nor is it short-changing students – on the contrary. Online and digital technology enhances active, “real world” learning, which is the way to truly gain skills that can be applied in the workplace and beyond.

Students should demand teaching that challenges them, recognises their drive and creativity, and prepares them well for a world in which nothing is clear-cut and simple, and few questions have only one right answer. Digital and online innovation can play an important role towards that pivotal goal.

I believe I owe it to students at my university to offer them the best education available, and I believe I owe it to learners worldwide to make that great education available to them, too. Online and digital delivery gives me the tools. Wanting to change the world gives me the drive.

2 responses to “If we get it right, digital and online learning will change the world

  1. Great to read this positive and forward thinking piece which knocks the usual “deficit” narrative around online learning out of the park. Now we just need to make it happen…

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