A few thoughts on “Collaborate to Compete: Seizing the opportunity of online learning for UK higher education.” Report to HEFCE by the Online Learning Task Force, January 20112011/01

“While UK higher education institutions are extremely successful in attracting international students to study in the UK there are also opportunities for growth in online and more flexible patterns of provision which combine UK and home country study; online, blended and on-campus UK experience. However, universities in many countries are strong competitors to the UK for these markets, and private sector providers are moving in quickly and aggressively.” (4)

In the latest publication from JISC (UK), “Collaborate to Compete”, they offer six recommendations to help UK universities, and the organizations that support them, to successfully navigate the opportunities of online higher education. The recommendations include, specifically:

1: Technology needs to enhance student choice and meet or exceed learners’ expectations

2: Investment is needed to facilitate the development and building of consortia to achieve scale and brand in online learning

3: More and better market intelligence about international demand and competition is required

4: Institutions need to take a strategic approach to realign structures and processes in order to embed online learning

5: Training and development should be realigned to enable the academic community to play a leading role in online learning

6: Investment is needed for the development and exploitation of open educational resources to enhance efficiency and quality

Each recommendation is useful and well-considered. But as the authors note, much of what they propose is familiar. Most professionals in online higher education understand the threats and opportunities online higher ed offers. Implementation is the greater challenge.

There are three elements of the report that I found particularly interesting.

Scale

The authors suggest that we need to pay more attention to economies of scale in order to better manage costs. I agree. (Economies of scale is a principle that holds that the cost per unit typically declines as the number of units produced increases.) Applied to higher education, “scale” can be used to explain why the cost per full-time student can be lower at the very largest universities (see Daniel). In the JISC report the concept is used – albeit loosely – to refer to the practice of sharing costs for the development and management of online courses. Bottom line: economies of scale can raise quality and reduce costs.

Benefiting from scale is a fundamental practice in most if not all of the industries with which we interact daily – but is often overlooked in education, particularly with respect to the creation of digital content.

Back in the late 1990s, when the possibilities of digital learning first dawned on me, I undertook a small commercial venture that tested the role of scale in digital higher ed (as well as my wife’s patience). I made the assumption that the rise of web-based learning would lead to a growing interest in the possibilities of educational media – what is often now called “rich media”. Looking forward, I believed that educational media would eventually become another form of media like radio, television, and film. And like these other forms of media, educational media will be built by highly skilled specialists, employ a unique production process, and seek to serve as large a market as possible in order to allow for significant upfront investment. End-users would benefit from the high quality that such an approach can offer, and lower per-user costs due to scale.

At the time there was no channel for selling this kind of content directly to students or educators in higher ed. I turned, then, to the textbook industry which has long had in place a business model that accommodates the “education as media” model I envisioned. I subsequently sold the product to two of the major publishers to package along with their books. (It was designed to work for several titles per publisher.) In a sense, I “borrowed” scale from publishing.

We haven’t come a great deal further in our use of scale in the past ten (plus) years. But there are signs that scale is finally emerging as a strategy for digital higher education. Scale is evident in some of the open content initiatives. It can be found in the “partnership” model offered by companies like Embanet and Colloquy. And the publishers themselves have begun selling courseware in significant volume to colleges.

Private Sector Participation

The report also suggests that private enterprises have a role in helping UK universities move forward with digital education. This is interesting on a couple of levels. Public-private alliances are common in certain areas of higher education such as applied research, but less so in those areas that concern the creation of educational materials used in teaching and learning. Moreover, it’s quite rare for a publicly sponsored organizations to produce a report that portrays private sector involvement in such a positive light.

The decision to partner with private sector organisations that have experience in distance learning operations was vital to the success of implementing distance learning provision at the University of East London (UEL). The establishment of UEL’s partnership with International Correspondence Schools (ICS) was crucial to achieve a rapid and viable entry to the distance learning market (15)

Competition

In a previous post I wrote briefly about the way in which people in higher education tend to overstate the intensity of competition between institutions. Closely related to this trend is the tendency to make claims about the intensity of competition without direct reference to evidence to support the claim.

Although this is a high quality report, it repeated the practice of making claims about heightened competition without any solid evidence to back it up. “Collaborate to Compete” doesn’t explain (or cite other works that explain) who is competing with whom or how this alleged competition has impact different schools. It’s inevitable that the online format will introduce new and eventually heightened competition, but most students continue to “shop locally” and those segments of the market in which students act more like classic consumers remains quite small. I recognize that sometimes we need to forgo deep, empirical research and simply go with our instincts  – based on our experience, anecdotes and the views of people that we trust. We are now at the point that we need to do some research to back up these assumptions. Demand for spaces in many universities, particularly in the current year, is at record levels. How do we reconcile turning away students and this heightened competition?