Inside Track – Professor Neil Morris: Exploring the potential of online education

Professor Neil Morris, Interim DVC: Digital Transformation, explores the potential of upscaling online education to support global learners and to meet the needs of professional learners.

Inside Track – Professor Neil Morris: Freeing up our time with digital technologies. November 2020

Our current focus is rightly on supporting our students through this academic year, to ensure they have opportunities to engage actively in planned learning and teaching activities, to enable them to demonstrate achievement of learning outcomes. It has been a challenging term, with many colleagues teaching online for the first time – learning how best to engage with, and support, students, while juggling multiple challenges in work and personal lives. Hopefully, most of us will be able to enjoy a well-deserved rest during the Christmas vacation.

This term will have resulted in a variety of perceptions amongst teaching colleagues about the value and impact of online education on students’ learning and engagement. We will collectively reflect on the good practice and positive impacts, and take this forward into our future plans, and we will need to work hard to manage and mitigate the challenges identified.

Whilst we may all be hoping that the start of the next academic session will be very different to September 2020, we expect to maintain a focus on blended learning for our on-campus students, whatever the situation with coronavirus. We believe – and the research literature increasingly confirms – that effective blended learning is pedagogically advantageous for our students, and supports our aspirations to offer them a more personalised, flexible and inclusive education.

Alongside a blended education, we also wish to offer our students opportunities to engage in fully online learning in the future – this has multiple advantages, including freeing up physical space for teaching and assessment, providing real choice for students and enabling efficiency in generic educational provision (e.g. research methods training). It also offers the major advantage of enabling our students to interact with learners around the world in courses hosted via online learning platforms. Our previous experiences of enabling students to study online discovery modules on the FutureLearn platform alongside global learners have been well received by students, who have cited the broadening benefit of gaining global perspectives whilst learning.

High-quality, research-based online education

We have a strong ambition to significantly grow our fully online education provision, including Masters programmes, and stackable credentials available on external online learning platforms. We are in a unique position as a research-intensive university with a strong heritage in online education, and we intend to capitalise on this advantage, to offer high-quality, research-based online education to learners globally.

If you are planning new educational provision, particularly at Masters level, please consider whether it would be possible as fully online provision – we have a strong Digital Education Service team ready and waiting to support you, and our current fully online Masters programmes are recruiting very well. For example, the MSc Engineering Management (online) programme has more than 170 students enrolled since its launch in September 2019. We are particularly keen to support interdisciplinary programmes focused on global challenges – e.g. sustainable futures, health, the climate challenge, future cities and transport, the digital human and applications of emerging technologies.

We truly believe we can significantly grow our international student cohort by offering fully online programmes, together with stackable credentials, and the benefits of flexibility are clear for many learners seeking Masters qualifications.

Expanding our professional and executive learning opportunities

In addition to our plans to grow use of online learning for our on-campus and global students, we also have ambitious plans to significantly expand our portfolio of professional and executive learning opportunities. Our current Continuing Professional Development (CPD) provision is relatively small-scale, and we are missing out on many opportunities to generate significant additional revenue through lack of focus on market opportunities and the concerted effort required to meet this demand with flexible professional learning provision. 

Therefore, we are currently reviewing our CPD strategy, and we will be looking to rapidly increase our face-to-face, hybrid and online professional learning offer. In particular, we believe there are many opportunities to leverage the growth in online professional learning that have arisen through the pandemic, by working in partnership internally and with our external partners to position the University’s research and scholarship as online education and training for professionals looking to upskill and reskill. This will be a significant focus in 2021.

If you are inspired by our plans for growth of online education and would like to be involved in leading these activities, please see our current opportunities to apply for academic leadership roles in online education, open educational practice and digital transformationPlease contact me to discuss these roles further.

Get involved in shaping our digital transformation strategy

As we develop the digital transformation strategy, we want to hear your views across a range of themes – ways of working, research and student education. There are a number of ways you can get involved:

  • tickets for the Leeds Conversations event about digital transformation on Tuesday 8 December are now sold out, but we will record the event and share this on For Staff and through eNews;
  • provide a case study of effective digital transformation from your area of activity – you can provide an outline case study via the MS Form, and we will be in touch to discuss this further;
  • tell us your ideas about what our digital transformation priorities should be in the areas of student educationresearch and innovation and ways of working using our Padlet boards; and
  • contact us to express interest in joining the digital transformation advisory group (open to all staff and students).

Further information

Read other Inside Track features recently published by Professor Morris:

Freeing up our time with digital technologies

Enhancing our research and innovation through digital transformation 

Introducing DVC: Digital Transformation portfoli

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