Online learning: University of the Arts London workshop

Workflow grabAs we are well aware, due to a series of changes in technology, economics and the web, the global higher education landscape is shifting and impacting the ways in which students learn, how they engage with one another and with the University. In this complex world where much formal and informal learning is undertaken online and on the move, and with increasing interest at the University of the Arts London to provide solely online or blended learning provision, Jo Morrison (Digital Projects Director) and Darren Gray (Head of e-Learning) led a workshop to investigate online education. This article provides a quick background to distance education based upon the discussions that took place amongst the workshop participants, which in turn provided a base for the subsequent investigation.

Brief historical backdrop of distance education          

If educators are going to engage in the practice of online education in a thoughtful fashion, then they need to understand…that online education has evolved from previous conceptions of education…

Jorge Larreamendy-Joerns, 2006:567

The above quote urges us to be sensitive to the long established links between education and technology. For instance, the connection between Newhart’s recent telepresence robots that offer virtual inclusion to students unable to attend school due to medical conditions, and the first correspondence courses delivered in the late 1800s and early 1900s via the UK and US postal services may not be immediately obvious, until we consider their shared desire to harness ‘new technology’ to enable social inclusion through educational outreach activities. Here, we can see social values as a characteristic woven through the fabric of distance education. This helps to remind us that we need to establish our own set of values when discussing the development of technologically mediated information and communication systems for education.

…the suggestion that technology isn’t playing a significant role in how people are communicating, working, constructing knowledge and socialising is to ignore a major influencing factor in a complex equation.

Weller, 2009

Whilst rejecting a ‘technological determinist’ perspective, one could argue that technological systems have enabled some of the significant shifts that have occurred in education over the past century, for instance asynchronous and repeatable instruction. In order to situate the workshop and develop a common frame of reference, the group plotted a brief, if uneven, history of distance education and technology (which we have shared in an earlier Digital Present article). The key moments identified included: postal service, radio broadcasting on the Canadian railways in the 1920s, School of the Air in Australia, television broadcasting, the launch of the Open University in the 60s, cable and satellite television in the 80s, multi-media formats (e.g. audio tapes, VHS, CD-Roms, DVDs), telecommunications and computer technology, and the internet. This exercise makes apparent an evolution through both technological stages, and generations. Reflecting on the activity, the group also noted the tendency for educators to seize upon the latest technologies as a ‘silver bullet’ for education. As Buck points out below, we have been here before, quoting J.E. Morgan in a commentary from 1930 on the (then) new technology of radio:

Not since the invention of movable type by Gutenberg in the middle of the fifteenth century has there been any force so revolutionary in its effect on the human mind

Morgan, (quoted in Buck, 2006:75)


Students studying in a College open learning space

Students studying in an open learning space

Systems thinking – and doing

At this point, in order to inform our present and future, it’s worthwhile to step back a century, and reflect upon why US correspondence courses designed to widen participation in education and ‘extend the university’ were ultimately unsuccessful:

A pressing difficulty was the absence of adequate organizational infrastructure to sustain initiatives as they scaled up. This included a lack of attractive incentives for participating faculty, who often deemed their teaching load through correspondence oppressively time consuming. Most distance programs also lacked sound financial support.

Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhard, 2006:576

With this in mind, how should we invest to build online learning capability (and capacity) in the face of continuing flux? Pressure on physical resources is in tension with the need to increase recruitment. Increased fees leave home students asking whether they can afford an art education, whilst institutions compete for foreign students in a global marketplace. All of this is occurring in an environment where relevance – the perceived value of an arts education – is being challenged. Online distance learning is already part of the University’s offer, and is sure to expand. How it does so in a way that offers an inspiring and sustainable learning and teaching experience is key. Simply using existing models and frameworks, uncritically, would surely be too risky an approach.

Assuming that the next 10-20 years will continue to bring significant change to the economic, technological and social environment, what digital literacies might the University community need to thrive? Indeed, who makes up that community? In order to retain and attract world leading staff and students, we need to respond to a changing environment for learning and teaching. Without systematically investigating and evolving this response, we cannot prepare appropriately for our future.

…we are merely custodians for the present generation of a complex intellectual inheritance which we did not create—and which is not ours to destroy.

Callini, 2012:199

Finally, technology opens debate around the existing models of HE and the assumption that institutions should take responsibility for all aspects of provision: research; teaching; assessment and administration. However, in a ‘connected’ economy such services do not always need to be co-located. Christine Redecker (2014) talks about how institutions might start to look different once there is an unbundling of these services. Some institutions may focus on providing guidance, whilst others focus on content or accreditation. This also creates new choices for the learner who might use various providers to configure a personalised education. Whilst the workshop participants didn’t advocate a break-up of institutional service provision, concepts such as Redecker’s are always useful tools for exploring alternative models of the higher education landscape.


Buck, G.H. (2006) ‘The first wave: the beginnings of radio in Canadian distance education’, Journal of Distance Education, vol.21, no.1, pp.75–88.

Clay, S., Gray, D., Linton, C., Morrison, J., Sabri, D., Turner, N. (2014) E-learning at the University of the Arts London. Available online.

Jorge Larreamendy-Joerns, Gaea Leinhardt (2006) Review of Educational Research, vol 76, no 4, p567.

Hooper, S., & Rieber, L. P. (1995). Teaching with technology. In A. C. Ornstein (Ed.), Teaching: Theory into practice, (pp. 154-170). Needham Heights, MA, Allyn and Bacon.

Moore, J,L. Dickson-Deane, C. Galyen, K.(2011) e-Learning, online learning, and distance learning environments: Are they the same? Internet and Higher Education. 14. 129-135.

Redecker, C. (2014) ‘The Future of Learning is Lifelong, Lifewide and Open’, Lifewide magazine, Issue 9: March 2014 [Online]

Renton, L., Flint, R. and Shave, T. (2008) ‘The Reflexive Archive: contexts of practice in art and design’, York, U.K. Higher Education Academy.

Thorpe, M. (2009) Technology: Mediated learning contexts… in Rethinking contexts for learning and teaching. London: Routledge.

Tu, C.H. (2002). The Measurement of Social Presence in an Online Learning Environment. International Journal on E-Learning, 1(2), 34-45. Norfolk, VA: AACE. Retrieved January 31, 2014

Weller, M. (2009) ‘Using learning environments as a metaphor for educational change’, On the Horizon, vol.17, no.3, pp.181–9; also available online at welleronthehorizon.pdf