Online Learning in the UK

Online Learning Ecology in The United Kingdom


Technology-enhanced education is changing the lives of millions without regard for identity, income, or location.

  • Have you deamed of getting a Surgical Sciences Masters degree? You can now obtain it online from one of the world's best universities.
  • Do you lack qualifications to enter a university, much less a Masters program? You now can enroll in a university of 190,000 global learners, at a cost of only $8,000 per year and learn from the comfort of your own home.
  • Are you interested in pursuing personal scientific inquiry with your fellow citizens? You can do that online even if you’re six years old.

How is this possible, you may wonder? Visitors from the United Kingdom, President Sir Timothy O’Sheaof the University of Edinburgh and Professor Eileen Scanlon from The Open University told us how in an xTalk on April 19.

Online Education at the University of Edinburgh: Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea

Sir Timothy spoke about the developments in technology-enhanced education at UE. There are three types of online learning at U Edinburgh: online + on-campus, online + matriculated + distance learning, and online + free access. The latter of these types is more commonly known as MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). At the University of Edinburgh, the MOOC with the best retention and completion rates is Equine Nutrition. Another learner favorite, Introduction to Philosophy, has spawned additional MOOCs, books, and online Masters degrees. Many other MOOCs are currently being added. The latest advancement is a series of MOOCs that deal with the issues of the day such as The Discovery of the Higgs Boson (see all currently available MOOCs at the University of Edinburgh.)

Upon the completion of a specified series of MOOCs, UE distance learners can receive a Masters degree. There are currently 60 Masters options available. The most impressive of these is the Surgical Sciences Qualification. To those apprehensive about getting help from a surgeon who got her degree online: the ESSQ students perform significantly better in the Membership of Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) examination and the course has won a prize for excellence from the Queen. In the digital classroom, ESSQ learners have high quality simulations to learn from. Plus, must either spend time at a hospital or travel to Edinburgh to prove their proficiency.

For those more interested in helping citizens of developing nations, the University of Edinburgh offers many interdisciplinary, highly focused online Masters degrees from the Global Health Academy. These degrees are focused on particular training needs, such as Global eHealthMedical Law and Ethics, and International Animal Welfare. New degree programs are currently under development. In case the overview of the UE online offerings doesn’t sound amazing enough, the data is imposing: since the launch of digital courses, there have been 2.2 million sign ups on 32 courses with over 1.7 million unique learners who have viewed the videos 13.2 million times and received 114,541 completion certificates. The learners represent 200 countries. 111 academics and a similar number of TAs supported the students through their educational journey.

Features and Resources of The Open University: Professor Eileen Scanlon

The Open University, located in the United Kingdom, presented by Professor Eileen Scanlon, Regius Professor of Open Education, prides itself in its mission of being “open to people, places, methods, and ideas.” In order to fulfill this, the staff strives to promote educational opportunity and social justice as well as provide high-quality university education for all who desire it.

Opened in the 1960s to improve education access for people from lower income groups, the OU was the world’s first successful distance teaching university. When the OU accepted its first students in 1971, 25,000 people enrolled, and this at a time when the total student population in the UK was only about 130,000. The Open University is currently the largest university in the United Kingdom, with more than 190,000 students, 1,100 academic staff, 7,000 associate lecturers/tutors, and 327 available courses. 20,000 of these students are from outside the United Kingdom.

Staying true to its mission of promoting access to education, the OU practices an open admission policy. A prospective student need only to sign up to get help, with no entrance tests or requirements. In fact, 44% of Open University students start without qualifications needed for conventional university. At the OU, the qualification that a student learn is the only one that matters.

Access at the Open University means also supporting 12,500 students with disabilities, more than any other university in Europe. The OU staff believes that by creating assistive technologies for students with disabilities, it raises the quality of education for all.

The Open University maintains its high standards of distance learning by providing a variety of educational resources. Its courses are available for free online at OpenLearn, OU’s “home of free learning,” which has hosted 35 million visitors worldwide, and iTunesU, which has gotten 20 million downloads. FutureLearn offers courses based on the idea of learning through conversations. Over 3.5 million people have used the website, with 38% taking part in the course discussions. A record-breaking FutureLearn course once received 15,000 responses on a single comment.

The Open University also supports Citizen Science , a gateway into formal scientific inquiry. OpenScience Laboratory provides learners from all over the world with virtual field trips, instruments, and lab access. iSpot is an online community for the study of nature. Participants take pictures of nature, and the rest of the community helps them identify the species in the picture. Occasionally, a community member makes an astounding discovery. Six-year old Katie, for example, recently made headlines by discovering a furry moth never before seen in the United Kingdom. Citizens inspired by OpenScience and iSpot can pursue their own scientific inquiry with the help of the nQuire software that leads citizen research. All of these tools are available to the public within and outside the United Kingdom.

The resources provided by the Open University are impressive, but is there proof that they work? Professor Scanlon closed her talk with six evidence-based statements about distance learning:

  • Distance learning pedagogies work. OU’s Supported Open Learning Model is not a replacement for face-to-face interactions, but remains efficient in a different way.
  • Support for students from over 8,000 academic staff and tutors influences retention.
  • Assessment can be meaningfully supported by online systems.
  • Creating excellent resources often requires the support of partners. For the Open University, a partnership with BBC has been invaluable in providing high quality material.
  • Authentic activities reward everyone.
  • Personalization for accessibility raises the quality of education for all.

Overall, informal lifelong learning is now booming. The world’s top universities are making more and more MOOCs against conventional wisdom. Their technology supports access and reuse, as well as increases learner autonomy. The next step for universities today is to erase the barriers to formal education and continue supporting diverse learners from all over the world. 

About xTalks:

xTalks: Digital Discourses is a seminar series to facilitate awareness, deep understanding and transference of educational innovations at MIT and elsewhere. xTalks forums share strategies, solutions, and issues related to transformation in educational practice, particularly through the use of digital technologies.

Explore upcoming xTalks, as well as archives of past events with video, audio, and slides.

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