Digital Learning in Higher Education: Pushing Beyond the Three Rs

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Over the last few years - and especially over the last six months - we’ve been been partnering with an increasing number of universities across the world, supporting them to plan and deliver digital learning strategies.

Perhaps the most exciting and interesting part of the collaborative process happens during the Discovery Phase when we raise THE BIG QUESTION: Why digital?

When working with universities, there are three separate but very much related answers to this question:

  • Driver 1: To maximise the reach of (i.e. access to) world-class content.
  • Driver 2: To generate revenue either through reducing costs or through the digitisation and selling of the institution's content.
  • Driver 3: To recruit students and faculty through using digital as a means of raising awareness of institutional expertise and brand.

Our experience here echoes the findings of a 2014 study by Columbia University which found from a study of 29 universities that the top three drivers behind digitisation were:

  • To extend the reach of the institution access to education.
  • To build and maintain brand.
  • To improve economics through increasing revenues (eg fees) or reducing costs.

In focussing on reach, revenue and reputation, universities are both putting themselves at risk and missing a trick.

The Risk - Falling into the Content Trap

While its ability to increase the reach of education is a critical benefit of digital learning, when the reach metric is optimised it comes at the cost of another, fundamentally critical metric: learner engagement.

As the death of the first-generation MOOC clearly demonstrates, however brilliant our content is if we merely digitise it - if we 'knowledge dump’ world-class content onto our learners - we don’t engage them and we lose them.

woman with head resting on hand
Photo by Niklas Hamann / Unsplash

In this scenario, learning doesn’t happen and our two further key metrics - reputation and revenue - are not only left un-met, they’re significantly compromised.

The Trick - Digital Learning Pedagogy

The trick which universities most often miss is that digital learning can and should offer more than just reach. Executed properly, digital learning is not merely a tool for the transmission of content - it’s a pedagogical intervention with the ability to deliver rich, engaging learning experiences at scale. Only through doing this can universities use digital to increase their reach, improve their reputation and generate revenue in real terms.

A large part of the work that we do with university partners, then, is to coach them to unlearn their assumptions about digital learning and to help them to understand that ‘going digital’ needs to be driven by pedagogical goals if it is ever to achieve its practical benefits.

The Future - Rich Learning Experience at Scale

How can this be done? As we enter the post-first-generation-MOOC era, arguably the most important and challenging question for the digital learning sector is: How do we balance the drive for reach and scalability with the need for a ‘beyond content' engaging and rich learning experience?

At Proversity, we believe that what differentiates first-generation digital ‘content dump’ learning from rich digital learning experiences is interaction, specifically:

  1. Interaction with carefully designed, problem-based activities for knowledge retention and skills development.
  2. Interaction with peers.
  3. Interaction with experts.

While a drive for reach and scalability will always place a limit on the type and number of interactions that we can build into our learning experiences, through smart design it is possible to deliver rich learning experiences at scale.

Working with the University of Oxford, for example, we have designed and delivered a next-generation MOOC which enables an infinite number of learners across the globe not only to access world-class learning content but also to complete active learning activities and interact with university professors.

Our latest MOOC, designed and delivered in partnership with HBKU, delivers a scalable, highly-interactive experience which enables learners to interact with peers through teamwork and with subject matter experts through live streamed Q&As.

At Proversity, we're really proud to push the understanding, expectations and impact of our university partners and to design and deliver next-generation digital learning experiences which maximise reach, reputation and revenue through effective learning design and digital pedagogy.

More broadly, we're excited to be pioneering the next-generation of rich digital learning experiences at scale, be that through smart pedagogy, expert learning design or through the development of new technologies like our Virtual Academies platform, Viper, which leverages the power of great pedagogy and AI to deliver interactivity without limit.