The Digital Education Service (DES) at the University of Leeds in England is a core service for online education across the institution, adding value to blended learning for on-campus students and designing and delivering online courses for a wide range of external students and learners.
In 2013, the University of Leeds developed its first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for FutureLearn, the online learning platform founded by the UK Open University and continues to work with them. The initial MOOCs were of general interest, showcasing leading academics and research. DES is now developing new models of MOOCs and online courses, incorporating micro credentials and resources applicable for multiple uses.
Dr. Megan Kime, Head of Digital Student Education, Digital Education Service describes the context of the digital developments at the University as “moving beyond the concepts of new and exciting to determining explicitly what the development is for – always looking for clear strategic benefits for students and the institution”. Initially, MOOCs best served lifelong learners, offering free content with little enticement to completion or engagement. Having gained experience in the field, the University of Leeds moved on to new models for MOOCs, including providing opportunities for earning micro credentials and using the resources developed for more than one purpose or learner group.
Undergraduate Micro Credentials: The University of Leeds offers learners a path to move from taking a single MOOC to earning credit transferable to an undergraduate degree program using MOOCs featured on FutureLearn. Short programs, consisting of five MOOCs each, are offered in the fields of Discovering Science, Environmental Challenges and Causes of Human Disease. Learners can take any of the five MOOCs in any order and receive a Certificate of Achievement for each MOOC completed. If they complete all five courses in a short program, they can take a final assessment for which they pay a fee. With successful completion of the assessment, they receive 10 credits which can be used for advanced standing and a fee reduction in an associated undergraduate degree program at Leeds and potentially other universities. A full undergraduate degree program consists of 360 credits.
Students enrolled in on-campus degree programs have free choice of a certain number of elective modules (courses), known as Discovery units, from any faculty at the university. Students often encounter scheduling problems in arranging their timetables. As an example of multiple use of resources, the Leeds short programs available as MOOCs on FutureLearn are available to on-campus students as electives. They follow each MOOC with registrants from all over the world, receiving additional support and assessment on-campus.
Graduate Micro Credentials: The University of Leeds has worked with the online learning platform Coursera to develop a model for graduate micro-credentials, which can lead to fully online master’s programs. Module content from master’s programs is ‘unbundled’ into three short courses, known as a ‘Specialization’. The first Coursera launched by Leeds on Coursera is in Managing Major Engineering Projects. Learners could follow each and all courses as MOOCs or choose to purchase a course to get access to graded tasks such as tests, critical analysis and peer review. Successful completion of the tasks for a course is recognized with a Coursera Course Certificate and completion of all three courses is recognized by the Chartered Management Institute, a United Kingdom professional association.
As an additional possibility, learners who complete the three short courses can take a Capstone project, offered as a closed access course on Coursera with practical research supported by an instructor. The exercises are marked by tutors so learners who pay for assessment get personal feedback and engagement, as well as access to additional materials such as video interviews with practitioners detailing their real-world experience, study skills support and library resources.
Following an open course is estimated to take 4-5 hours a week for 5 weeks; the assessment option implies about 10 hours a week for 7 weeks.
Completion of the courses and project can earn the learner 15 credits that can be applied by successful applicants to online master’s degrees at the University, which are 180 credits in total. The completion of these courses does not guarantee acceptance to a master’s program, as the University’s other criteria still apply.
An Induction Course for Multiple Uses: To support students beginning online postgraduate degree programs, an induction course was created, and pilot tested in 2018. The course, Pathways to Success, is particularly for professionals doing postgraduate studies part-time while working and balancing other responsibilities. The course goals include:
- Help student develop a sense of community in their cohort and as part of the university;
- Provide information on program administration, sources of support and use of online library; and
- Develop necessary skills, including online capacities, for student success.
Student stories, ice breaker activities, discussions, interactive exercises and other course components provide practice using the technology and tools, encourage engagement with other students and outline the ground rules for online communication. The induction course was pilot tested, and the research results are now being analyzed.
One of the aims of Pathways to Success (P2S) is to develop online resources able to be used in a variety of graduate programs, both online and on-campus. The second phase of the project explores this possibility. P2S was revised for students coming to study at Leeds at the postgraduate level who are enrolling in pre-session language courses.
In the original offering for the online students, a study skills audit is a preliminary exercise, followed by access to resources to improve any skills, such as academic writing, referencing, and critiquing work. The pre-session language students are international students who need a more detailed understanding of the UK educational culture. For pre-sessional language students, this more specialized information is available from tutors once they arrive on campus. Student surveys and focus groups with students and tutors assess the effectiveness of this alternative application of Pathways to Success.
Benefits and Outcomes
The opportunity for MOOC registrants to work towards credits for undergraduate and postgraduate studies represents a low-risk entry into higher education studies, to assess their interest and capabilities.
On-campus undergraduate students taking MOOC short programs as credit electives in their programs are exposed to a more global learning community. As an example, those enrolled in the MOOC on Causes of Human Disease follow the courses along with medical practitioners, patients and families, offering a wider variety of perspectives, experiences and background than in a traditional university classroom.
On-campus students have greater flexibility in timetabling through the inclusion of MOOC undergraduate short programs for credit in their degrees.
Additional recognition, such as that by the Chartered Management Institute for the Managing Major Engineering Projects Specialization, benefits learners and employers. As practices and attitudes differ towards micro credentials, a professional award is more tangible and easily understood. Dr. Kime explains the University prefers to offer professional credentials for short online programs, but it is not always possible or appropriate.
Students new to postgraduate study, whether online or on-campus, benefit from the experience, advice and practice offered by the induction course. It provides practical applications of the skills necessary for academic success.
Challenges and Enhancements
At Leeds, as at other higher education institutions, a major challenge is to combine the traditional system of credits based around learning outcomes with the new methods of delivery, while striving to retain academic rigor and reach new and wider groups of students.
Complying with University policies and quality assurance standards is greatly supported by the supportive and flexible Quality Standards team, offering solutions and suggestions for getting though the process. Institutional support is essential as changes such as those involved with digital learning can be disruptive to an organization. Going through each step carefully and thoroughly the first time around takes more time but, if done successfully, means future developments are faster and more efficient.
The University is looking to establish a balance between open content with free access and the funnel or restrictions on access to assessment at a price. At the undergraduate level, learners who earn credit from MOOC enrolment can be admitted to degree programs. But the graduate level presents more challenges, with admission requirements including completion of an undergraduate degree. Consequently, performance in open courses is not adequate preparation for entry. The task is to determine the most seamless route from open to post graduate work.
Building content for re-use in varied applications and multiple platforms requires considerable time and creativity, especially for interactivity, student engagement and group activities. The experience of converting the Pathways to Success course from use with online postgraduate students to students in pre-sessional language courses demonstrated the specific needs of different student groups must be attended to. Specific content and exercises designed for one group become a barrier to easy transfer for use to other students. The existence of an unmanageable number of variations of the same tool becomes a possibility, reducing any benefits from scale and consistency. The challenge is to identify the right-sized building blocks that can be re-used without substantial revision.
Micro credentials can be built into a full qualification through the bunding of short programs into a package. Megan Kime suggests this could be done by bringing together six short programs on FutureLearn for an undergraduate certificate, with the challenge being determining coherent and related content that comprise a singe qualification. The same structure is potentially possible on Coursera at the post graduate level.
For Further Information
Dr. Megan Kime
Head of Digital Student Education
Digital Education Service
University of Leeds