Digital learning for universities

Charlie Stone

September 16, 2019

The financial issues facing universities

In 2019, many UK universities are caught between two opposing needs – that of ensuring teaching and research excellence, and that of remaining financially sustainable. While in an ideal world universities should aim exclusively to further the pursuit of knowledge, their financial situation must always be taken into account.

Many universities are trying to meet financial needs by recruiting more students, whose fees represent important funds. Initiatives to encourage more applicants vary, from promoting exciting courses, offering cash rewards to students who sign up, to building brand-new student facilities.

However, the tension between educational and financial needs is also being felt by these students, who increasingly view a university degree as just another commercial transaction. Many are questioning whether they have received good value for money, and stories of students suing their universities have done the rounds. It’s been suggested that this is a reaction against rising tuition fees – people want to make sure they get what they pay for.

A flexible solution

An obvious way of tackling these issues is to offer more cost-efficient courses. This would free up funds for additional recruitment ventures and could incentivise enrolment if the courses themselves were cheaper for students.

Many universities and course providers are finding that distance learning (where the student learns remotely) and blended learning (a mix of face-to-face tuition and remote learning) are effective and helping to lower costs. These learning styles involve more independent study and therefore fewer funds required for teaching staff, space and facilities.

Distance learning and blended learning are made possible by today’s ever-improving technology. Digital courses involve online or offline (app-based) modules and assessments, often alongside lectures, webinars, discussion boards and collaborative learning activities available in a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). For digital learning to have a significant impact, it requires more than simply allowing lecturers to upload their PowerPoint slides onto the VLE; it requires a fully functioning course that students must complete over a defined period of time and that is structured in line with university-accredited assessments.

Of course, digital methods of course delivery aren’t suitable for all subjects – you’d be hard-pressed to award a Chemistry degree without students attending labs – but it can be extremely effective for vocational courses or courses with several non-practical modules.

Practical benefits

It is also a practical way of teaching students. Technology is extremely effective at monitoring assessment scores and course engagement rates. It’s also what students have come to expect in this digitally-literate world. With 24/7 access to all their course materials, they have the flexibility to study while working or at home – again, making digital learning particularly suited to vocational, work-based courses. This makes degrees more accessible as a wider group of people who require flexible learning options feel able to enrol.

For many institutions this can seem like a large and intimidating step to take. And it’s true that it doesn’t happen overnight. But there are plenty of institutions and course providers that have invested the time and effort to create high-quality digital learning courses, such as the University of Essex, Anglia Ruskin University and Unitas (via the University of Suffolk), and many have seen huge benefits in terms of course uptake and completion.

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