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Published by the Learning and Teaching Unit
Summer 2003
ISSN 1477-1241
Learning and Teaching in Action logo

Vol 2 Issue 2: Flexible and Lifelong Learning

LTiA home page

Editorial
Brian Murphy

Lifelong Learning: the agenda and the response
Rob Halsall

Flexible Learning within MMU: Working smarter not harder
Fred Lockwood

"What the ..@#~* PDP* < $*|>.. is going on ?"
Trevor Williamson

How adults really learn- or what we think we know about how they learn!
Jane Artess

'Transformative' Models for Learning, Teaching and Academic Professional Development - A 'Self-ish' Approach
Shaheena Abbas

Developing a Departmental Employability Strategy
Chrissie Gibson

The eUniversity
David Lambrick

Skills for Lifelong Learning: A Progress Report
Louise Willmot

Professional Modern Apprenticeships
Vic Leyden

Lifelong Learning Means You Too
Hannah Peace

Faculty Learning and Teaching Reports

Learning and Teaching News from the Library

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Photo of Dave Lambrick

David Lambrick
Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences

The eUniversity

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 operational infrastructure.

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 high quality.

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 ‘maintenance windows’.

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.

2004 onwards

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.



David Lambrick
e-mail: d.lambrick@mmu.ac.uk
telephone: 0161 247 1594

 

July 2003
ISSN 1477-1241


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