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‘The higher education of the future will be more flexible’

The future of education lies in its ability to become more flexible: students will put together their own study programme from different educational institutions. This is the vision presented by Neil Morris, Dean of Digital Learning at the University of Leeds. He is the keynote speaker at the ‘Best of Both Worlds’ symposium on digital education on 31 January.

Education has become increasingly digital, and we have to think about how we can offer our students the best of both face-to-face and online teaching. And can online lessons strengthen your regular teaching? These will be key topics at the ‘Best of Both Worlds’ symposium, an initiative of the IT & Education innovation programme, faculties and the Centre for Innovation. More than 15 lecturers from Leiden University will share their experiences with combining online and offline teaching with colleagues and other interested parties.

Preparing for flexible and online learning

The keynote speaker is Professor Neil Morris, Dean of Digital Learning at the University of Leeds. ‘The University of Leeds is aiming to "unbundle" education; by that we mean creating more room for flexibility and adopting a modular approach. We believe that students in the future will be more likely earn their degree by combining study credits from different educational institutions.’ In Leeds, we are already preparing students for that future by offering online modules where students can earn study credits, Morris explained. 'We were really enthusiastic about this approach, and expected that a lot of universities would follow our example, but that didn't happen.' In the United States it's already a lot more common to accredit online education, but there students are only awarded the credits they have built up if they are enrolled in a programme. Or they only get them when they take a complete online programme of several different subjects. Morris went on to say, 'That's not the direction we wanted to go in when we started this project. Our aim was that nothing should get in the way of students getting their education where they wanted.’

Growing role for employers

This more flexible approach to education is great for students, Morris believes. 'Why wouldn't you want to study with the best in the world within a particular field if you're online anyway?’ Obviously the average eighteen-year-old needs help in putting together the right package of modules. The university can help students by offering a curriculum that includes online modules at other institutions. 'But it's also more than likely that a future employer will have a finger in the pie. I'm sure that employers will stipulate that students have to have taken particular subjects.'  

'Students should be able to study where they want,' says Neil Morris, Dean of Digital Learning at the University of Leeds.
'Students should be able to study where they want,' says Neil Morris, Dean of Digital Learning at the University of Leeds.

Online platforms as custodians

‘You can already see that online platforms are preparing for their role as custodians for that kind of teaching,' Morris says. For example, companies can set up a platform for educating their staff on Coursera for Business, and Coursera helps them choose the subjects: 'You're a technology company, so why don't you get your staff to take this course?' Morris: ‘The next step is that employers will say: 'You have to have followed this group of courses if you want to come and work for us.' And that will be a mix of study credits from the world's leading universities.'

Improving campus education

According to Morris, this online development by no means heralds the end of universities. 'I believe strongly in the campus experience, but at the same time I think that the student population and the opportunities for studying will become more diverse. It's unavoidable. With online teaching, universities are suddenly able to attract students that they couldn't have reached before. That's why it's wise for educational institutions not to ignore online education.' Not only that, according to Morris, online education also offers opportunities to improve campus teaching. The teaching will be become a richer experience because students will come into contact online with sections of the world population with whom they would otherwise never have a conversation. And it is good for lecturers' skills because it forces them to think differently about curriculum development and teaching methods. 'At the University of Leeds every academic who has been involved in online education has included this development in their own teaching practice. It has radically changed our thinking about teaching.'  

‘Best of Both Worlds' symposium : adding online experiences to on-campus education’

Want to hear more, or to talk to Neil Morris or one of the many other speakers? Lecturers and staff who are interested in digitisation and innovation in teaching are welcome to come to the ‘Best of Both Worlds’ symposium on 31 January from 13.00 hrs. Participation is free. More information and how to sign up.

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