Skip to content ↓
MIT student blogger Yuliya K. '18

Online Learning Ecology in The United Kingdom by Yuliya K. '18

An xTalk on Amazing Programs and FREE Resources

Technology-enhanced education is changing the lives of millions without regard for identity, income, or location. Ever dreamed of getting a Surgical Sciences Masters degree? Now you get it online from one of the best universities in the world. Are you worried that you have no qualifications to enter a university, much less a Masters program? No worries! Now you can enroll into a university of 190,000 learners from all over the world, at the cost of only about $8,100 per year and from the comfort of your own home. Interested in pursuing personal scientific inquiry with your fellow citizens? You can do that online even if you’re six years old.

How is this possible, you may be wondering? Visitors from the United Kingdom, Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea from the University of Edinburgh and Professor Eileen Scanlon from The Open University, told us how in another installment of the xTalks: Digital Discourses series organized by MIT Office of Digital Learning.

Features and Resources of The Open University

The Open University, located in the United Kingdom and presented by Professor Eileen Scanlon, Regius Professor of Open Education, prides itself in the mission of being “open to people, places, methods, and ideas.” In order to fulfill this, the staff strives to promote educational opportunity and social justice as well as provide high-quality university education for all who desire it.

Opened in the 1960s to improve education access for people from lower income groups, the OU was the world’s first successful distance teaching university. When the OU accepted its first students in 1971, 25,000 enrolled, and this at a time when the total student population in the UK was only about 130,000. The Open University is currently the largest university in the United Kingdom, with more than 190,000 students, 1,100 academic staff, 7,000 associate lecturers/tutors, and 327 available courses. 20,000 of OU students are from outside the United Kingdom.

Staying true to its mission of promoting access to education, the OU practices an open admission policy. A prospective student needs only to sign up to get help, with no entrance tests or requirements whatsoever. In fact, 44% of Open University students start without qualifications needed for conventional university. At the OU, the qualifications that the students earn are the only ones that matter.

Access at the Open University means also supporting 12,500 students with disabilities, more than any other university in Europe. The OU staff believes that by creating assistive technologies for students with disabilities, it raises the quality of education for all.

The Open University maintains its high standards of distance learning by providing a variety of educational resources. Its courses are available for free online at OpenLearn, OU’s “home of free learning,” which has hosted 35 million visitors worldwide, and iTunesU, which has gotten 20 million downloads. FutureLearn offers courses based on the idea of learning through conversations. Over 3.5 million people have used the website, with 38% taking part in the course discussions. A record-breaking FutureLearn course once received 15,000 responses on a single comment.

The Open University also supports Citizen Science, a gateway into formal scientific inquiry. OpenScience Laboratory provides learners from all over the world with virtual field trips, instruments, and lab access. iSpot is an online community for the study of nature. Participants take pictures of nature, and the rest of the community helps them identify the species in the picture. Occasionally, a community member makes an astounding discovery. Six-year old Katie, for example, recently made headlines by discovering a furry moth never before seen in the United Kingdom. Citizens inspired by OpenScience and iSpot can pursue their own scientific inquiry with the help of the nQuire software that leads citizen research. All of these tools are available to the public within and outside the United Kingdom.

The resources provided by the Open University sound amazing, but is there proof that they work? Professor Scanlon closed her talk with six evidence-based statements about distance learning:

  • Distance learning pedagogies work. The Open University Supported Open Learning Model is not a replacement for face-to-face interactions, but is efficient in a different way.
  • Support for students from over 8,000 academic staff and tutors influences retention.
  • Assessment can be meaningfully supported by online systems.
  • Creating excellent resources often requires the support of partners. For the Open University, a partnership with BBC has been invaluable in providing high quality material.
  • Authentic activities reward everyone.
  • Personalization for accessibility raises the quality of education for all.

Check out some awesome free resources from The Open University at OpenLearn here and in the links provided above. 

Online Education at the University of Edinburgh

Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, Principal of the University of Edinburgh, spoke about all the exciting developments in technology-enhanced education at UE. There are three types of online learning happening at Edinburgh: online + on-campus, online + matriculated + distance learning, and online + free access. The latter of these types is more commonly known as MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). At the University of Edinburgh, the MOOC with the best retention and completion rates is the Equine Nutrition MOOC. The Introduction to Philosophy MOOC is another learner favorite. This course has spawned several additional MOOCs, books, and online Masters degrees. Many other MOOCs are being added every day. The latest advancement is a series of MOOCs that deal with the issues of the day like The Discovery of the Higgs Boson. (see all the currently available MOOCs at the University of Edinburgh here)

Upon the completion of a specified series of MOOCs, UE distance learners can receive a Masters degree. There are currently 60 online Masters options available. The most impressive of these is the Edinburgh Surgical Sciences Qualification. To those apprehensive about getting help from a surgeon who got her degree online, Professor O’Shea would say two things: the ESSQ students actually perform significantly better in the Membership of Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) examination and the course has won a prize from the Queen (see Professor O'Shea meeting the Queen here). In the digital classroom, ESSQ learners have excellent simulations to learn from. Plus, they have to either spend time at a hospital or travel to Edinburgh to prove their proficiency.

For those more interested in helping citizens of developing nations, the University of Edinburgh offers many interdisciplinary, highly focused online Masters degrees from the Global Health Academy, focused on particular training needs, such as Global eHealth, Medical Law and Ethics, International Animal Welfare, etc. New focused degrees are currently under development.

In case the overview of the University of Edinburgh online offerings doesn’t sound amazing enough, here is some impressive data: since the launch of the digital courses, there have been 2.2 million sign ups on 32 courses with over 1.7 million unique learners who have viewed the videos 13.2 million times and received 114,541 completion certificates. The learners represented 200 countries. 111 academics and a similar number of TAs supported the students through their educational journey.  

Overall, informal lifelong learning is now booming. The world’s top universities are making more and more MOOCs against conventional wisdom. Their technology supports access and reuse, as well as increases learner autonomy. The next step for universities today is to erase the barriers to formal education and continue supporting diverse learners from all over the world. 


See the audio and slides from this awesome xTalk here

Check out previous blog entries about the xTalks on the 2600-Year History of the University and Blended Learning at MIT.