Perspectives: Policy and practice in higher education is the AUA’s monthly journal which provides higher education managers and administrators with innovative material which analyses and informs their practice of management.

The Perspectives journal is published four times a year, and is available to AUA members in both hard copy and online.

Members can access the full versions of Perspectives online. Once you are logged in, you will see a button below. Click here to log in

We are continuing our series celebrating articles that have appeared in the AUA’s journal Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education which our members have found relevant or meaningful.

This review is written by Dr Julie Davies, a member of Perspectives’ Editorial Advisory Board and co-editor of the book reviews section. She is a Fellow of the AUA and currently a Reader in Leadership Development in the Centre for Decent Work and Productivity in the Faculty of Business & Law, Manchester Metropolitan University.

Here she reviews ‘E-learning across the Atlantic’ which she co-authored with Nigel Pigott in 2004 following an AUA study visit to Canada and the USA. This article was originally featured in Perspectives Volume 8, 2004 (Issue 2).

Perspectives article review – ‘E-learning across the Atlantic’ – Julie Davies and Nigel Pigott – (2004)

Debates about whether distance learning in higher education is a poor substitute for in-person teaching have been brought to the fore in the rapid shift to digital education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Writing 17 years ago based on our experiences of working and studying at the Open University Business School and our AUA study visit to Canada and the USA, Nigel Pigott and I in our paper ‘E-learning across the Atlantic’ reflected on the value of online learning, a question which persists today.    

In our 2004 paper, we observed that ‘the most successful institutions emphasise convenience and customer service’. We also noted the value of online learning for continuous professional development and lifelong learning and the importance of professional services staff in conducting market research for online programmes to succeed. What is different today, of course, is the competition from digital badges for credentials from organisations such as LinkedIn, Microsoft, Duolingo and opportunities to partner with them while not becoming locked into contracts for platforms that are no longer fit for purpose.  

In the USA, we observed the roles of instructional designers and professional staff who were completing doctorates. In the article, we also talked about the need to upskill staff and faculty to support e-learning. We discussed the potential for e-learning to reduce the costs of education, increase access, and to achieve long-term educational, administrative and economic benefits, particularly in Canada where e-learning was well developed for communities living in remote regions. We used the analogy of higher education managers as surfers who observe the environment systematically in the midst of turbulence, scan ripples of opportunity, and exploit them for competitive advantage.

From our standpoint in 2021 as we look forward to returning to campus in some form over the next year, it is interesting to note that we are working in the context of industry 5.0, a digital age focused on humans collaborating with machines. This entails mass customisation and personalisation, which is why Amazon has been so successful during the pandemic. In the context of the AUA’s HE profession of the future project, it is also important to reflect on the importance of institutions investing in digital literacy and infrastructure for professional development. Key feedback from the AUA project included comments about the accelerated development of technology and greater use of online learning.

Our paper remains relevant as an important reminder in rethinking higher education while harnessing the benefits of technology to support communities of learners. I continue to believe that digital education can facilitate social inclusion despite the digital divides that the pandemic has highlighted. Online learning is not a poor substitute for in-person teaching. It is complementary and hybrid/blended learning can provide real benefits for student learning going forward.

Michael Barber’s recent report on digital teaching and learning ‘Gravity assist: Propelling higher education towards a brighter future’ highlights the benefits of online learning. These include increased flexibility, personalised learning, better career prospects, pedagogical and global opportunities. Provided we balance our attention to the social side of learning with developing competences in using technology and invest strategically in leadership, staff, and business models that the November 2020 report ‘Learning and teaching reimagined: A new dawn for higher education?’ recommends, the UK higher education sector can continue to demonstrate high levels of professionalism in uncertain times.