Behind the infographic: 20 years of strategic investment in online learning
This year we have been celebrating 10 years of massive open online courses (MOOCs) at the University of Edinburgh, having delivered more than 100 short online courses and shared over 1000 videos as open educational resources (OERs). We have an infographic that captures these achievements, alongside an impressive number of fully online postgraduate taught programmes and students (over 80 programmes and more than 5000 online students)
It occurred to me recently that we might have missed another anniversary in 2023: twenty years of strategic initiatives and investment in online learning that have underpinned these impressive numbers. I wrote a paper last year with colleagues Michael Gallagher and Markus Breines (Gallagher et al. 2022) that reflects on the role played by sustained investment through strategic initiatives in learning technology and online learning and how those initiatives influence what we do today. It is 20 years since the Principal’s eLearning Fund (PeLF) was initiated by Sir Tim O’Shea, one year after becoming principal of the University in 2002. That was a significant event and in this short blog post I’d like to explain why.
The Principal’s eLearning Fund (PeLF) (2003-2008)
PeLF was “a major, time-limited initiative designed to foster the development and widen the use of eLearning in the University of Edinburgh” (Anderson et al. 2008). £3.6 million of funding was distributed amongst sixty-four projects in a purposefully top-down, bottom up, “let a thousand flowers bloom” (Fullan 2007, p 11), approach to innovation.
A number of these projects proposed the development of fully online masters programmes, with the first launching in 2005: the MSc in Pain Management. By the time the final report was written in 2009, nine online masters programmes had been successfully launched, including the MSc in eLearning (now the MSc Digital Education). Significantly, the report notes:
Distance education has traditionally not been seen as an area of activity for the University of Edinburgh. Consequently, the nine PeLF projects directed towards the development of courses and programmes offered for participation at a distance can be seen as marking a watershed. (Anderson et al. 2009)
All of these programmes were directed at professional education: fully online, part-time programmes aimed primarily at those already employed in the areas of medicine, veterinary medicine, law and education. They were reported to be the most high-profile PeLF projects due to the difficulty in ratifying and quality assuring an entirely new mode of teaching and learning. Those projects, and course teams, laid the foundations for culture and practice change within the university.
The Distance Education Initiative (DEI) (2010-2014)
If PeLF was the watershed, then DEI was the initiative designed to expand online learning and embed organisational change to enable fully online programmes to be more than a niche activity, becoming a mode of study every school and discipline in the university could offer. By the end of DEI funding in 2014 the online portfolio at Edinburgh University had grown to 52 programmes (and far beyond just a focus on professional education).
With £5M of funding over 5 years, we are developing a wide range of fully online taught Masters programmes, enabling potential students to access advanced education without breaking their careers … These high-quality courses are subject to our normal QA processes. We are re-designing many of our student services to be fully online, to the benefit of all students. (Professor Jeff Haywood, CIO and lead DEI lead)
Strategically, I think four important decisions informed the initiative:
- Fees were to be the same no matter where you live (rest of world students to pay the same as UK and European students);
- Online is the same quality as on-campus – programmes are encouraged not to mention “online” on degree transcripts;
- Design purposefully for online – merely putting recordings of on-campus lectures online would not be acceptable.
- Assess and teach purposefully for online – we should not resort to practices such as invigilated online exams or a requirement to attend local exam centres.
Operationally, four thematic areas were addressed at this point:
- Student experience: changes in the student record to make sure appropriate information is sent to online students; student support sessions made available online; 24 hour helpline support.
- Staff development: investment in dedicated staff development for online teachers and support teams; building a community of practice.
- Learning technology: investment in new platforms for online teaching (for example virtual classroom and social hubs).
- Marketing: dedicated marketing support; online marketing community of practice.
These were significant organisational investments that developed infrastructure, policies, and professional identities enabling the University of Edinburgh to become one of the biggest providers of online degrees in the UK.
Initial investment in MOOCs (2012-2015)
Overlapping with the growth in online programmes, the University was early to see the potential of open education in the form of MOOCs. Again, Sir Tim O’Shea led from the top, signing Edinburgh up as the first international university to partner with Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng’s newly founded Coursera in 2012. Signing with FutureLearn in 2013 and edX in 2015, the “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach led to Edinburgh being the only UK university to partner with all three providers. You can read more about the pros and cons of this approach in a recent blog I wrote for the THE’s Inside Higher Ed (Nicol and Buckland 2023).
Learning, Teaching and Web services (LTW) (2014-)
Significant structural changes were also put in place to mainstream support services for online learning (and learning technology more generally). Firstly, a new directorate was created in the central information services group: Learning, Teaching and Web Services (LTW) bringing together support for everything related to teaching with technology and web into one place. Secondly, the new director of LTW, Dr. Melissa Highton (Assistant Principal Online Learning), brought a renewed focus on the importance of a well-defined approach to open education resource (OER) practices. In 2015 a new OER service was set up and in 2016 Edinburgh became one of the few UK universities to formally adopt an OER policy, encouraging teachers to share teaching resources under an open licence where possible. Thirdly, support for MOOCs was moved from being a special project team to a formal online course production service, including coordinated support for the marketing of online learning.
Distance Learning at Scale (DLAS) (2017-2019)
This was a period of ‘serious experimentation’, based on the successes in both our online masters programmes and MOOCs. The intention was to test whether a small number of masters level online programmes could be taught at relative scale utilising the reach provided by MOOC partner platforms, new technologies to support and augment teaching, and innovative research-led pedagogical practices. The University of Edinburgh became the first European university to launch a MicroMasters programme with edX in 2019. As well as experimenting with learning analytics for mentoring support and adaptive tutoring, a programme of research led to a number of publications exploring new technologies and approaches for teaching online (Breines & Gallagher 2020, Gallagher and Breines 2020, Gallagher et al. 2021). Most importantly, a new staff development course was developed that proved to be crucial in supporting on-campus teachers move to emergency online teaching COVID-19 lockdown: An Edinburgh Model for Teaching Online (more than 700 University of Edinburgh teaching and support staff benefited from the Edinburgh Model course in summer 2020).
I will skip 2020-22 as the story of emergency online and hybrid teaching during the pandemic has been well documented elsewhere. Hopefully this potted history of strategic investment has shown how important the initial PeLF funding, 20 years ago , has proved to be in the process of moving from a solely on-campus university to one that offers a large number of fully online programmes, enabling students from across the globe to attend our “virtual campus” without having to travel. We have built internal culture and capacity through sustained investment whilst our commitment to open education enables us to share our assets and experiences with the wider educational community. Below are some links you might find useful, including repositories of media that you can reuse and short online courses from our online course production team about designing online courses and creating videos for online teaching. We are currently working on making the Edinburgh Model for Teaching Online available as an open course; look out for its launch early in 2024.
My slides for the KnowHow EdTech conference (Sept. 2023): Online learning at the University of Edinburgh 2003 – 2023
How to create an online course (short course on FutureLearn): https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/how-to-create-an-online-course
How to create video for online courses (short course on FutureLearn): https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/how-to-create-video-for-online-courses
The Edinburgh Learning Design Roadmap (ELDeR) as OER: https://open.ed.ac.uk/elder-edinburgh-learning-design-roadmap/
Open media bank: https://media.ed.ac.uk/channel/Open+Media+Bank/76589901
Open media stock footage: https://media.ed.ac.uk/channel/Open+Media+Stock+Footage/75712481
Edinburgh University on Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/@university-of-edinburgh-328305910/
Online course production team: https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/learning-technology/onlinecourse-production
Anderson, C., Day, K., Gowans, S., & Macleod, H. (2009). Final Report of The Principal’s E-Learning Fund Evaluation (PELFe). https://www.wiki.ed.ac.uk/pages/viewpage.action?spaceKey=eLPP&title=PELF+and+Beyond. Accessed 18 July 2022.
Bayne, S., Gallagher, M.S. and Lamb, J. (2014) Being ‘at’ university: the social topologies of distance students. Higher Education, 67(5), pp.569-583.
Breines, M. & Gallagher, M. (2020). A return to Teacherbot: Rethinking the development of educational technology at the University of Edinburgh. Teaching in Higher Education.
Fullan, M. (2007) The NEW Meaning of Educational Change. 4th edn. London and New York: Teachers College Press/Routledge.
Gallagher, M. & Breines, M. (2020). Surfacing knowledge mobilities in higher education: Reconfiguring the teacher function through automation. Learning, Media, and Technology.
Gallagher, M., Breines, M. & Blaney, M (2021). Ontological Transparency, (In)visibility, and Hidden Curricula: Critical Pedagogy Amidst Contentious Edtech. Postdigital Science and Education, 3: 425–443. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-020-00198-1
Gallagher, M., Nicol, S. & Breines, M. (2022) Ghost Hunting in the Broken Archives: Re-Historicizing Digital Education in an Institutional Context. Postdigital Science and Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-022-00330-3
Nicol, S. and Buckland, F. (2023) Learning by doing: practical tips from 10 years of making Moocs. Time Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed., 13th September 2023.