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Where do you want to be with e-learning?

30 November 2012

Vice-Provost (Education) Professor Anthony Smith discusses the growth in open online courses and UCL’s position in this complex field.

Professor Anthony Smith, UCL's Vice-Provost (Education)

The profile of e-learning has risen dramatically in 2012, with much speculation over whether the impact of MOOCs (massive open online courses) on universities could lead to the downfall of higher education as most of us recognise it.

So where do you wish your e-teaching to be on a spectrum that ranges from basic use of a virtual learning environment as little more than a calendar and archive of slides to a MOOC with thousands of students? There are important points in between these two extremes: enhancement of the experience of our on-campus students through greater interactions between student and teacher and between peers – so-called technology-enhanced learning – to short courses and CPD by online distance learning. 

MOOCs have grabbed the headlines now that a number of elite universities, notably in the US, are joining consortia such as EdX and Coursera to promote them. The profiles and huge levels of uptake of these courses are compelling, but less consideration is being given to outcomes and what is being learnt. It is estimated that 90% of the world’s population aged between 18 and 60, some 3.5 billion people, cannot access the education and knowledge trapped in universities. This is in stark contrast to just 150 million students who are studying in 17,000 universities around the world.

The differing approaches taken by universities to developing MOOCs is also striking. Building on the disruptive innovation of Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, MIT considers the experience of developing mass online learning as deliberately disruptive to shift their thinking forward on the education of their on-campus students, whereas other institutions provide no pedagogical help to academics wishing to put their courses online.

Somewhere in this space also sit MOCs (massive online courses) and POCs (premium online courses). In MOCs the word ‘open’ is missing, meaning that institutions will be seeking to charge a small fee, either in recognition of the nature of the material that is being made available or because students are assessed and certified in some way. In POCs, the ‘P’ stands for ‘premium’: the fee is much higher and there is an expectation of greater interaction between student and academic.

So where is UCL in this fast-moving environment? Work is progressing on a number of fronts. UCL’s developing E-learning Strategy establishes where we are today and where we need to be in three to five years’ time. Today we have Moodle 2 as our virtual learning environment, Lecturecast for capturing and podcasting lectures, Turnitin for the e-submission of student coursework and Grademark for marking and feedback. We also have the UCL standards for our virtual learning environment where every course has as a minimum a Moodle page with administrative information and basic learning resources.

The next step is to make Moodle courses more interactive and engaging with, for example, better use of communication tools, online activities and quizzes, and also to integrate other resources at UCL such as the library-led Reading Lists@UCL initiative. Some UCL colleagues are innovating, for instance using pre-recorded lectures to ‘flip the classroom’, whereby students watch mini-lectures in their own time and then use Moodle to decide what areas to focus on in class; the face-to-face session is then used for more in-depth, exploratory and interactive learning as the ‘content’ has been delivered in advance.

What help is available to get to grips with this technology and to blend it with your face-to-face teaching and learning activities? The starting points are the E-learning Environments (ELE) team, the UCL Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT), and, in most departments, teaching administrators (TAs). Many TAs are part of a UCL project called The Digital Department which aims to help administrators develop skills in e-learning to support academic and teaching staff in getting their material ready for Moodle. You can also use the Teaching and Learning Portal to find case studies showcasing innovative e-learning activities from across UCL. Elsewhere, Professor Andrew Eder from the Eastman Dental Institute is leading the PELP (Public E-Learning Platform) project to develop a public-facing e-learning platform.

The intention here isn’t for UCL to get immediately into MOOC territory, rather it is to develop a mechanism by which persons who are not registered students of UCL can access some of our resources as short courses and continuing professional development materials. Here, Moodle will also be the starting point.

It is clear that there are many examples across UCL where genuinely innovative approaches to e-learning and blended learning are being pioneered. If, like me, you have a pathologic dislike for re-inventing the wheel, please contact Teaching and Learning Portal Editor Ele Cooper ( in order to share your ideas and case studies with the whole UCL community.    

Professor Anthony Smith, Vice-Provost (Education)

Page last modified on 30 nov 12 15:59

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