This guest blog has been kindly provided by Professor Neil Morris, who is the Director of Digital Learning at the University of Leeds.

  • An A-level student seeking to get a head start on their UCAS application.
  • A current undergraduate wanting to study a specific topic with a leading academic at a different university.
  • A recent graduate looking to get a foot in the door of a career that doesn’t directly relate to their degree subject.

These are just three people who could gain from a new online learning initiative in which the University of Leeds is playing a leading role.

We have teamed up with digital provider FutureLearn on a project that, from September 2016, will see Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) contribute to degrees for the first time.

It means that people will be able to take standalone, credit-bearing courses that will count towards an undergraduate degree.  The courses will offer learners an introduction to undergraduate study and provide opportunities for research-based learning and skills development.

It doesn’t take much imagination to think through what this could mean for students like those mentioned above.

And while we may be some way off students throwing virtual mortar boards in the air to celebrate fully-digital degrees via this initiative, it is no exaggeration to say it represents a significant move away from a purely campus-based education.

The initiative will bring two distinct benefits.

The first is flexibility. Those that could benefit will include people who do not want to gain a full higher education qualification, but may only need individual elements of a particular degree to achieve their goals or access employment in their chosen field. Some others may want to study for a degree, but over a longer period than the traditional three years.

The second benefit is access. For some people – carers and those with long-term health issues, for example – traditional campus-based study is not an option. The chance to study remotely opens doors and, in time, could see them gaining a full degree from a leading research-intensive university.

As in so many other areas, in higher education new digital aproaches can be a great leveller.

Both of these aspects chime strongly with the thrust of the Government’s recent White Paper and the Higher Education and Research Bill, which aim to put the student in the driving seat through greater choice while widening access.

The initiative also says something about the future direction of higher education.

There is an inevitability to the entry of more private providers into the market, the rise of online education and, associated with both of these factors, the unbundling of higher education. In recent weeks, we have even seen stories predicting the Google degree, the Apple degree or the Facebook degree.

While I certainly would not go anywhere near predicting the end of the campus-based degree as we know it, I do expect to see more examples of the kind of partnership we are undertaking with FutureLearn in the future.

Just as the digital world has transformed other areas of life, so higher education will be no exception. I strongly believe that universities need to be offering substantially more online learning.

Online education is available to anyone with access to the Internet and is a global phenomenon; FutureLearn has more than 3.6 million registered users from almost every territory on the globe. The smart university is the one that recognises this and moves early.

Despite offering broad benefits, such as co-curricular opportunities, cultural experience and the chance to develop interpersonal skills, the value of a campus-based education is not as distinctive as it once was precisely because sophisticated technology can now offer a rich learning experience as well.

In an increasingly market-driven, competitive marketplace, which is being further nudged along by public policy developments, initiatives of this kind will appeal to learners scanning a rapidly changing educational landscape for the best deal.

Online education is also likely to appeal to employers who are already exercising a greater influence over higher education, for example, through the increased involvement of employers with universities on the subjects taught.

So this is not an overnight revolution in higher education. But it is a potentially significant step towards a model of education that recognises partnerships between universities and digital providers can be mutually beneficial, drawing on each party’s strengths.

For our students mentioned at the outset of this blog, that can only be a good thing.