A recent report on the BBC website indicates that Exeter University and Pearson are planning to develop online postgraduate degrees. Although the title doesn't talk about specifically flexible delivery, the article makes it clear that the target market is the typical one for flexible learners: students who 'will be fitting their studies around full-time jobs, to access course material when and where it suits them'. There will be 'weekly interactive online teaching sessions delivered from university faculties'. It is also clear that one of the goals for this initiative is to extend the university's global reach as well as to widen access to higher education for vulnerable and disadvantaged people. Lastly, the press release seems to indicate that Exeter wants to engage with the development of high-quality vocational (rather than academic) qualifications, and of degree-apprenticeships.
This is an intriguing initiative on the part of an institution which has traditionally emphasised and prized being a 'destination' university which attracts many younger learners who are seeking a strong campus-based experience. Part of the intrigue lies in the fact that the fall in part-time student numbers is well known and the subject of much research. Another part lies in the partnership with Pearson. Of all the various models of flexible learning that are evidenced around the sector, Liverpool's partnership with Laureate is probably the most similar to Exeter's with Pearson. Laureate Education, Inc. is a global network of accredited campus-based and online post-secondary institutions offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 1,000,000 students around the world. Laureate students attending one of more than 80 institutions are part of an exciting, international, multicultural academic community that spans across more than 28 countries in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Laureate makes the University's programmes available online, provides the e-learning environment and personal student support, while the University of Liverpool is responsible for the academic quality of the programmes and it awards the degrees.
If Exeter plans to use a similar model with Pearson then there are important points to note. The development of the online courses is effectively outsourced, meaning that the university's academic staff may not be heavily involved in the pedagogic design of the programmes. Exeter is rightly keen to emphasise its uncompromising stance on the quality of these courses, but this can frequently lead to a reining in of genuine flexibility, since offering learners genuine choices about how, what, when and where they learn leads to a high level of individualisation which can concern those responsible for quality assurance. (The grounds for this concern are never entirely clear: maybe the drive for learner parity on the assumption that this means everyone has to do everything at the same time and in the same way?) And, as is so often repeated on this website, online learning and flexible learning are not synonymous.
One to keep an eye on as it develops.
Dr Alison Le Cornu is a freelance Consultant in Academic Practice working in higher education. She specialises in flexible learning which she understands as empowering learners by giving them the ability to choose how, what, where and when they study. This is very dependent on institutional systems and structures having the capacity to facilitate this. She works with institutions at all levels to help them bring about the institutional/student partnership that this requires.