Online learning at research-intensive universities needs a strategic approach


Online learning has the potential to change teaching and learning at European universities profoundly. Recent trends have greatly accelerated the development of and investment in online learning, at research-intensive universities in particular. In its latest advice paper Online Learning at Research-Intensive Universities LERU emphasizes that universities should seize the opportunities that online learning offers, but must do so smartly and strategically.

LERU is convinced that online learning will play an important part in the future of teaching and learning at European universities. The new LERU paper emphasizes, however, that this will only be to the advantage of students, learners, and universities themselves if those universities take a strategic approach towards online learning, in their own institutions and with learners worldwide.

“Intelligent scenario planning, underpinned by a willingness to think radically where necessary, will be key to the future provision of a successful learning experience for the next generations of students”, says Sally Mapstone, Pro Vice Chancellor Education at Oxford University and co-author and editor of the LERU paper. She stresses that quality control of online courses is absolutely fundamental: “Research-intensive universities should take the lead in defining standards and expectations for quality assurance in online education. Online offerings should always be subjected to the same rigorous evaluation as traditional course offerings.”

The future of online learning at research-intensive universities is most likely to be part of a blended learning approach: an on campus experience supported by the digital when it has most added value or enhancement. But for these universities online learning and digital technologies have further great potential in the creation of partnerships and alliances between institutions and even, when it makes sense, the sharing of resources. Again, however, this needs to be part a strategic planning exercise.

The role of policy makers in this narrative is mostly to support and incentivise universities to take a strategic approach to online learning and to stimulate them to be innovative. This support should not only be through policy development but also through the allocation of the necessary funding. Setting common, open, technical standards and working with institutions to develop portals or gateways for the sharing of high quality online materials should be on their priority list as well. 


The LERU paper emphasizes that research-intensive universities should take a lead in online education in terms of policy making, content creation and delivery, quality assurance, partnerships and collaboration. Online learning initiatives should be driven by a mission to open up and enhance education, to vitalise the blended learning environment, and to maximise the potential for distance learning, OER, and crowd-sourcing initiatives. The educational online future is an exciting one and research-intensive universities must both embrace and strongly influence it.

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