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UK higher education reform: the implications for educational technology

The impact of the UK government's 'The future of Higher Education' white paper is still reverberating around the system. We know about the tuition fees, and the 50% participation rate, but what's the role of e-learning in all of this?

The overarching thrust of the plans for reforming HE in England is fairly clear: a hike in tuition fees and differentiation in the rate of fees charged by an institution, offset by a raft of measures to widen access. Though a lot of attention has been devoted to the contracts fee-charging universities have to sign to ensure that students from non-traditionally academic backgrounds are recruited, a lot of the heavy lifting of that inclusiveness will be done by elearning. Provided it works across institutions, sectors and the public and private sector, that is.

To start with the vision thing: "Encourage more flexibility in courses, to meet the needs of a more diverse student body and improve support for those doing part-time degrees." is what it says in the executive summary. Slightly more expanded, that means that HE institutions are strongly advised to develop new ways of teaching to cater for students for whom the traditional lecture is either not suitable or an option. This doesn't just imply distance education or e-learning, that's what's explicitly stated in the white paper: "There are not enough choices for flexible study - including part-time courses, sandwich courses, distance learning, and e-learning."

While this sort of sentiment is not terribly surprising, there is a new aspect. As part of the drive for wider access, the Government is promoting two year 'foundation' degrees with a generally vocational slant. The thinking behind it, is of a flexible '2+' system where people hop in and out of courses while they work. Lifelong learning, clearly. Nice, but it requires flexible ways of providing tuition and credit transfer. In short, more provision via elearning is expected, and administrative systems are expected to have the flexibility to provide support for the diverse ways in which people develop personally throughout their lives.

But just bunging a few courses on the web, and entering students in a decent student records system is not enough. Rather a lot of emphasis is placed on colloboration between all parties with a stake in HE. Universities, for example, are told that there is too little cooperation in the sector, which is especially required to "promote the innovative use of ICT and credit accumulation and transfer." This, the white paper noted, is also a financial issue, as it thinks a lot of money can be saved by sharing massive blended courses across consortia. Specifically, "HEFCE has set up the UK e-Universities project to encourage HEIs to work together and make the development of e-learning more affordable, sharing the development costs of e-learning materials to reduce the barriers to market entry. HEFCE will now work with partners on plans to embed e-learning in a full and sustainable way within the next ten years."

All of which presupposes that content can freely interoperate in people's VLEs, and that the student record systems will happily exchange records. Nor is this limited to HE. The FE sector is expected to provide more HE level courses, but mainly in cooperation with local universities, in the same flexible and innovative way. The aim behind these HE - FE links is "to give students clearer progression pathways and support the development of work-based degrees."

Which brings us to the point where technology is probably going to matter most: recording achievement. There's a whole section devoted to it, which enjoins that "We must also ensure that we have robust ways of describing, measuring and recording student achievement which are helpful to the student, to institutions, to employers, and to other stakeholders." In order to get there, both existing measures and new methods "to develop more sophisticated ways of measuring 'value added'" will be reviewed. Finally, and possibly most controversially, the Government will be evaluating the present degree classification scheme, and a review group will be set up to consider "possible alternative methods for presenting the overall achievement of students (in addition to detailed achievements by module, subject, or individual learning experience contained on transcripts)." Clearly, the work of the Centre for Recording Excellence and the CETIS LIP SIG on the UK learner profile -which is designed to do all these things- will be in pretty widespread use.

As with a lot of the Labour Government's policies, however, there's a little sting in the tail. As another trade-off for the fee raising powers devolved to universities, it is felt that prospective students should have "clear and helpful" information to choose between universities. This will be carried out by the National Union of Students, and they'll be looking "whether the provider is a centre of excellence, the quality of its IT provision and other facilities, entry requirements, results, and the employment record of its graduates." Or else...

The white paper and much else is available from the Department for Education and Skills.

More on the UK learner information profile can be found at the newly revamped Centre for Recording Achievement website.

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