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Scaling up online education? More haste less speed

  • 29 April 2020
  • By Neil Morris

This guest blog has been kindly contributed by Professor Neil Morris, Chair in Educational Technology, School of Education, University of Leeds. He can be found at @NeilMorrisLeeds

The Unbundled University research project, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC grant number ES/P002102/1) and the National Research Foundation in South Africa (NRF grant number 105395), explored a range of issues in relation to the expansion of online education in universities in the UK and South Africa, including partnerships with private companies and the disaggregation of learning and teaching materials for delivery online (‘unbundling’).

Data were collected from interviews with senior leaders, academics, students and private companies in both countries. The data are being written up for publication in academic journals, but given the rapid shift to focus on online education as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is evident that some of the headlines from the research need to be put in the public domain rapidly.

Here, five inter-related themes which emerged from the data analysis are explored:

  1. universities are looking to rapidly upscale their online education capabilities;
  2. a clear online education strategy, investment in skills, and buy-in from staff are essential;
  3. partnerships with private companies and online platform providers require detailed thought;
  4. online education strategies should be aligned with on-campus blended learning delivery; and
  5. commercialisation of academic-created teaching materials for online education needs to be navigated carefully.

Even before Covid-19, decision makers in universities were grappling with complex discussions in relation to campus-based and online education, and trying to identify mechanisms to generate a return on investment from campus-based digital technologies, alongside experimenting with approaches to grow their online education portfolio. Primarily, this was because universities were looking to expand and increase revenue from student fees (including lucrative international fees), but student numbers have outgrown the physical footprint and available space on many university campuses.

Many universities had experimented with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), but few had turned this into a revenue generating activity, and limited numbers of universities (excluding Open Universities) had extensive experience and capabilities in developing and delivering successful large-scale fully online degrees. As a result of Covid-19, and the well-documented risks to universities in terms of international mobility, availability of campuses, and reticence from most students for full online education, there has been a dramatic and rapid increase in discussion within universities about scaling up online education, and the opportunities and challenges of doing this internally, or in partnership with private companies and/or online platform providers.

Our project showed that universities need to have a clear online education strategy in place before embarking on partnerships or ventures with private companies. Our senior leader interviewees described a range of factors which had influenced their decisions about how to grow online education. Each university has its own mission and values which need to inform its online education strategy, and these values will place different weightings on the importance of financial drivers against other priorities. It is clear that these factors can be in tension when considering partnering with private companies, such as Online Partnership Management (OPM) companies and online platform providers.

Private companies have profit making motivations which may or may not align with the university’s aspirations for additional income, and there may be varying expectations about the time scale for return on investment. There will also be negotiation required about the portfolio to be developed as fully online programmes, and the programmes with potential for scale and long-term financial sustainability may not align with the university’s expertise. Universities also have to balance their responsibilities for public good, in terms of social mobility and widening participation imperatives, and civic responsibilities to their local, regional and national contexts. Our research showed universities can, with thought, balance these tensions through innovation, for example by creating online courses for individuals in low-income countries, alongside creating high-fee professional level fully online degrees.

Our research demonstrated that it is really important for senior managers to develop and discuss their online education strategy with staff on an ongoing basis, and to embed online education within the core business of the university – the recent situation at Durham has been a very public lesson on this. The increased use of digital technology, and development of online programmes is a new activity for many academic staff, and requires allocation of time, training and support. The decision to work in partnership with private companies for growth of online education also needs to be discussed with staff, given growing concerns from academics that their knowledge and teaching content is being commercialised.

It is clear that many universities are scaling up their in-house capabilities for developing online education, and most appear to be doing this through central units involving instructional designers, video producers and content writers. Our interviewees believed that this has the potential benefits of reusing learning content across multiple courses, and for use by on-campus and online learners. However, there were also words of caution about the centralisation of this activity, particularly in terms of potential erosion of academic autonomy, control over teaching materials and pedagogical approaches.

Over the last 10 years, most universities seeking rapid growth in online education have entered into partnerships with Online Partnership Management companies, accepting reduced student fee income in return for a range of services (for example, marketing, recruitment, course design, teaching delivery, student support). Some of these partnerships have been financially successful, and high-profile, but always generate significant debate within universities, particularly about marketisation, commodification of education and the role of the academic teacher. Increasingly, as the market for fully online degrees becomes more mature, there is greater competition, particularly around fees; generally, students expect fees for online degrees to be significantly lower than campus-based fees, due to widespread perceptions of lower quality education in the fully online mode.

As this market has evolved, and the number of university – OPMs partnerships has grown, online platform providers (traditionally MOOC platforms) have entered the fray, offering full online degrees, and deals with universities to attract new students. Some universities have made the move from OPM partnerships to working with online platform providers, allowing them to maximise the reuse, repurposing and co-creation of online courses created and delivered on online platforms, and to use these for campus-based learners, and in partnership with other universities. Even before Covid-19, universities were discussing the need to offer more flexible approaches to pursue a degree for campus-based students in the future, involving more use of online learning alongside traditional learning approaches. Therefore, this current situation can have long-term benefits for students, if universities create collaborative, interactive online learning which can be accessed and used by both online and campus-based learners, and makes more effective use of technologies and services purchased by universities, and greater use of online learning platforms by campus-based learners

Our data showed how universities expect growth in online education, and are preparing for a future where learners demand greater flexibility in the modes of study available to them at undergraduate, postgraduate and professional levels – this is likely to be significantly greater, post Covid-19. While our interviewees all acknowledged the future growth in unbundled educational provision, and the benefits this offers in terms of flexibility for a broader continuum of learners, they also cautioned around the educational impacts of disaggregating educational content from the educational experience, and the crucial role of academic teachers to act as navigators of learning journeys. There is likely to be continued growth in sub-degree qualifications (for example, micro-credentials) offered by a range of stakeholders, as alternatives to the traditional campus-based degree. Universities will need to continue to evolve rapidly to effectively serve the demands of learners post Covid-19, and will need to innovate in the area of online education, increasing capability, capacity and knowledge among staff and educational leaders. This will be crucial to guard against the disaggregation of higher education, which will continue to attract interest from a wide range of private providers, including employers and new training providers.

For more information about the Unbundled University research project and the full list of researchers involved, outputs and access to data, see An online course about the project and the research findings is available on Futurelearn:


  1. Pete says:

    The FutureLearn course was a really useful overview of this area with a good reading list to find out more: I’d strongly recommend it to others. Thanks for the innovation of disseminating your research findings in this way…

  2. Albert Wright says:

    Thanks for a very interesting piece. Many factors to take into account, particularly relating to partnerships and platforms.
    The intellectual property side of content creation becomes highly important when “consumption” of specific modules may be seen by millions.
    Another aspect could be the separation of content from the evaluation of student learning and achievement recognition.

    If the “teachers” become distanced from “exam” setting and marking, how will it all work out?

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