Corsham Court Barn - the songwriters studio used as part of BSUs Distance Learning programme in Songwriting
Corsham Court Barn - the songwriters' studio used as part of BSU's Distance Learning programme in Songwriting

The Online Learning Task Force (OLTF) last week published its report making various recommendations about the future of online learning in HE.

The OLTF makes six recommendations to HEFCE and government;

  • Technology needs to enhance student choice and meet or exceed learners’ expectations
  • Investment is needed to facilitate the development and building of consortia to build scale and brand in online learning
  • More and better market intelligence about international demand and competition is required
  • Institutions need to take a strategic approach to realign structures and processes in order to embed online learning
  • Training and development should be realigned to enable the academic community to play a leading role in online learning
  • Investment is needed for the development and exploitation of open educational resources to enhance efficiency and quality

The report speaks for itself, and, in my view (based on what I have seen at many Universities) it demonstrates how far behind the rest of the world Higher Education’s (still primarily face-to-face) activities have fallen.

I think this is symptomatic of the unique times in which we live. For the first (and only) time in history, we have a generation of educators (and senior managers) most of whose professional experience and training occurred mostly pre-Internet; conversely, we have a generation of learners (some of this year’s HE applicants were born in 1993) who have only ever known a wired world. Marc Prensky coined the phrases ‘Digital Natives’ and ‘Digital Immigrants’ to describe this generational divide. Although Prensky’s work has been rightly criticised for its poor research methodology and lack of supporting evidence, one thing at least is clear – that younger people generally spend more time online than older people (my own anecdotal experience of observing students and academics is supported by the research). Thus, parts of the HE sector are likely to be quite resistant to some of the OLTF’s recommendations – this has certainly been my experience in some staff training sessions.

To be fair to late-adopter HE teachers, evidence for student demand for online learning is inconclusive. Students clearly want part of their learning experience to be online, but not necessarily at the expense of ‘premium’ face-to-face staff contact. The OLTF report makes the following observations about student demand, based on NUS survey data;

  • students prefer a choice in how they learn
  • students expressed concerns regarding the ICT competencies of lecturers
  • appropriateness of learning technology varies significantly from course to course
  • at present, most students are self-taught in IT skills
  • students prefer to be regarded as partners in the development of online learning rather than mere recipients

This is not to say that all teaching should pander to student preferences; HE teachers are, by their nature, experts in teaching & learning, so just because a student may prefer a certain form of learning, this does not necessarily mean it is the most effective or sound pedagogical strategy.

However, it is clear that HE itself is partly demand-led; students choose courses, and all HEIs need to fill places. Thus, any university would be foolish to ignore student demand for online or blended learning, especially in the forthcoming higher-fees climate.

And, of course, there are some students for whom online learning is the only option (actually, I’m one of them, being a distance-learning PhD student at the moment). Yesterday I met an MMus Songwriting student (she was a distance learner, and we spoke during the residential week that forms part of this particular online programme). Here’s what she said to me – as verbatim as I can remember it;

“I have to say, studying this course online has great for me. What with the family and day job, I never could have afforded to give up a year and move to Bath. I waited years to find a Masters that I could study online – and this one came along at just the right time.”

(BSU Masters Distance Learning student, Feb 2011).

This example demonstrates that there are at least some students for whom face-to-face learning at a particular site is not possible. Of course, such a demand for distance learning is hardly a revelation – the Open University has around 168,000 students, almost all of whom are studying using a distance-learning model. Unsurprisingly, the OU is at the forefront of the development of online learning in HE (its Vice-Chancellor Martin Bean was part of the OLTF group).

So although the future for HE is almost certainly neither all-online nor all face-to-face, the learning (and recruitment) opportunities appear to suggests that the current balance between the two is changing – and Universities need to adapt fast.


The full report can be downloaded here, and is summarised by the HEFCE article below;

HEFCE Online Learning Task Force report (pdf)

HEFCE article summarising OLTF report


  1. I have one student who put a perspective on this. He does not read. So text as above is inaccessible for him. E-learning has also to embrace that digital natives for want of a better term are more susceptible to visual learning. Given that much of face to face interaction is non verbal, much of e-learning is failing because it is too word/text based.
    nic jeune

    1. Good point! This is another example of how e-learning offers so many opportunities to learners of different types. We’ve been experimenting with audio and video assessment feedback (and of course Skype tutorials) recently on various music courses. Looking promising…

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