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Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences
The eUniversity, or to give its official title, “UK eUniversities
worldwide” (UKeU), is a major UK initiative in both distance learning
and learning technologies. It is a government backed, public-private partnership
and is an eLearning initiative aiming to offer high quality, flexible
and accessible higher education and professional development programmes
to students globally. Rather than being a higher education institution,
UK eUniversities is a shareholder company, which is jointly owned by all
(originally bar one, I believe) of the UK's universities. From its inception
it has also been a partnership with private sector companies, particularly
those developing learning technologies. Its development has been co-ordinated
by HEFCE and the UK Government has allocated some £62m over 2001-2004.
In addition the major private sector partner, Sun Microsystems, has committed
£5.6m. Fujitsu have also joined the partnership and now supply the
The creation of UK eUniversities was driven mostly by the need for UK
Universities to compete more effectively in the fast developing global
HE market but also partly by the need to develop new technologies for
delivering HE. The intention is to enable UK HE institutions to offer
high quality eLearning to overseas students. The initiative was also framed
to be commercially viable and intends to offer professional education
to corporate clients in the UK/European Union as well as further afield.
UKeU was not designed to recruit degree students from within the European
Union. As public funds have been allocated to create it, UKeU also has
a public service obligation.
UK eUniversities has a centralised operating company which is developing
the eLearning platform for the delivery of the programmes. This company
also helps to market the programmes and works to establish links with
HEIs in the target countries.
A Brief History
The project was first announced by the then Secretary of State for Education
and Employment, David Blunkett, on 15 February 2000 and the company was
incorporated on 19 October 2001. A holding company was created first and
this is owned by the group of nearly all Universities in the UK. This
company is eLearning Holding Company Ltd. An operating company was then
created and this is licensed by the holding company to actually deliver
programmes. This is UKeUniversities Worldwide Ltd and runs as a profit
making company. These companies were staffed by about February 2002 and
began to function fully then. The Director of Learning Programmes is David
Unwin formerly Professor of Geography at Birkbeck College. Jonathon Darby
(formerly at Oxford University), who has a long history in technology-based
learning, is 'Chief Architect' and thus responsible for design and development
of the learning systems.
On the 21 March 2001, Vice-Chancellors/Principals of HEIs received an
invitation to express interest in pilots to develop e-learning programmes.
These were to be submitted by the 7th May 2001. These initial bids were
to be aimed at the professional Masters degree market and were to be commercially
viable. The bids were required to specify: subject and level, target market,
pedagogic model, technological assumptions, qualifications to be awarded
and the quality assurance and project management process. Design and delivery,
intellectual property rights considerations and funding also had to be
addressed. The Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at
MMU in collaboration with the Universities of Huddersfield and Salford,
having for some years run an on-line distance learning programme (called
UNIGIS) in Geographical Information Systems (GIS), decided to submit an
Expression of Interest (EOI) bid. In total around 87 EOI bids were submitted
of which 13 were chosen to proceed to next stage (including our GIS bid).
Of these, 3 were chosen to fast track as pilots (and so received a better
‘deal’ financially) and went live in Jan 2003:
- PgC Learning in the Connected Economy (Cambridge/Open University)
- Masters in Public Policy and Management (York/WUN *)
- MSc in Information Technology and Management (Sheffield Hallam University)
Development of the Bids
The 13 successful EOI bids then had a series of meetings with UKeU staff.
The two key issues in developing the bid were the business model and content
delivery. The UKeU business model demanded a financially sustainable (profitable)
programme, which in effect demanded large numbers of students (ultimately
1000s) and/or high fees (say up to £8000). Expectations for content
were high – they were looking at the BBC for video production for
example. Expectations for the content delivery were also exacting, there
were requirements for conforming to international standards such as SCORM
(see www.adl.net) and IMS (see www.imsproject.org).
The programmes and awards remained those of the HEI, which was responsible
for QAA matters, but the UKeU established its own Committee for Academic
Quality (CAQ) which would also have to approve the programme. This would
pay particular attention to the delivery. The programmes offered via the
UKeU would effectively be a showcase for UK HE and therefore had to be
Programmes had to be thought through from market definition to curriculum
development to launch to revision to closure. The initial plans envisaged
5 years for the programme to be running although this was later increased
to around 10 years with start-up and run-down periods added to the beginning
and end. At some point the programme had to start paying back its investment
costs and ultimately move into profit.
For the UNIGIS bid three key issues were the financial requirements,
tutor support and content conversion. The first implied a rapid scaling
up of what we currently did - we were looking at fee levels greater than
£4000 and quickly achieving an intake of something like 300 students
per year (the UKeU was talking of aiming towards 100,000 students at this
time). The second implied a programme of recruitment, retention and management
of a network of tutors and MSc dissertation supervisors. Thirdly, conversion
of our existing on-line materials to meet the UKeU specifications where
the indications were that this might cost around £150,000. The collaborative
nature of the UNIGIS programme also meant copyright to materials was a
little more complicated. We eventually decided that the model was not
for us at that time and decided not to proceed. Since then I believe the
business model has been revised.
So what did/does UKeU offer?
Firstly it offers a true e- learning platform. The UKeU platform
is being/has been built from scratch specifically to meet the needs of
remote adult learners at university level. Something like £20m has
been invested in its development. There is a commitment to use Open Systems
architecture and the platform will be the first such platform designed
exclusively for distance learning. Team authorship and tutoring
will be supported and the learning environment should be fully integrated.
Sun Microsystems are the "lead architect" for developing the
platform. They are providing system hardware, Learning Management System
(LMS) and consultancy services as well as a significant amount of the
software technology. At the time of my involvement, EPIC Group was developing
the platform user interface.
The commitment was to create a scalable system using ‘SunONE’
technology. The platform as presented in 2002 was based on Sun’s
Enterprise servers, Solaris™ operating environment, iPlanet Internet
software and Java™ (J2EE) technology. Open Standard products were
being used wherever available. The system was being designed to conform
to IMS, SCORM and OKI specifications and had to be accessible to users
with special needs. Operation would be 24/7 with no regular scheduled
Secondly it offered global sales and marketing. The plan was for
the UKeU to provide a global sales and marketing infrastructure for the
programmes. The Sales Director had previously been at Informatics Holdings
Ltd, Malaysia, a company that works in the education market. UKeU aimed
to establish local offices e.g. in SE Asia and China to aid recruitment
and develop student mentoring strategies. The initial focus has been on
Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and the Middle East – that
is regions that have English language competence and some affinity with
UK Higher Education. There was an aim to work closely with British Council.
UKeU have recently become involved with the eChina initiative.
The Next Development
Whilst further commercial professional/MSc courses would be developed,
UKeU also has a public service obligation to fulfil. Thus in early 2002
HEIs were invited to bid for additional student places. This was not about
commercial programmes but was about meeting widening participation objectives.
These programmes were to be funded through normal HEFCE funding methods
and part of the aim was to assist in addressing the government’s
50% participation target among 18-30 year-olds by 2010.
The deadline for these bids was Friday 31 May 2002. The model is for
1+3 or 2+2 programmes – i.e. one or two years of distance learning
with UKeU and then moving to full-time attendance at the collaborating
HEI. By June 2002 they had received 65 partnership proposals from 28 UK
Higher Education Institutions and from these they would select about 5
to pilot this kind of provision. These programmes would require at least
300 ftes in steady state.
The aim was to have another 10 commercial courses (MSc/professional)
on-line plus some of the “non-commercial” programmes (around
5). The Universities of Manchester/Leeds, the University of York/WUN and
the University of Ulster have now joined the original group and added
a further 7 postgraduate programmes due to commence in Sept/Oct 2003.
This aim is thus largely realised. The University of Leeds is developing
a programme in GIS and recently advertised posts to support this programme.
A Research Centre was to be established at a host University and would
be headed by Robin Mason of the OU. The initial expectation was that 5/6
staff would be dedicated to research in learning technologies. The UKeU
website may be found at www.ukeu.com.
UNIGIS may be found at www.unigis.org.
telephone: 0161 247 1594
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