New Year, new job

After five years at The National College I shall be leaving this Christmas to take up a new post in January as head of development and delivery at University of Derby Online. University of Derby Online is a new startup funded by the University of Derby to be the vehicle that develops and delivers online courses and programmes for the University.

At a time when the cost of Higher Education is rocketing, I am very excited to be part of this new venture. Part of its mission will be to make Higher Education accessible and affordable (and of real high quality) at a time when it appears to be less attractive and accessible. The social purpose of that part of the business is something that I am completely passionate about.

I have been an online tutor for distance learners for well over a decade, mainly through my work on Sheffield College’s LeTTOL and Effective Mentors courses, and in previous roles, particularly at Warwick Business School, I have worked on the enhancement of traditional distance learning programmes by developing online resources, courses, tuition, support and communities. However, to lead the development and delivery of online programmes for an entire organisation, which in a distance learning context means being responsible for the quality of teaching and learning which happens on our online programmes, at this time, in this economy, is an opportunity that is too good to miss.

The fact that UDOL is a separate business tasked with meeting demanding recruitment and financial targets is another very attractive part of the role because it means that the learner must be at the very centre of the business. We will succeed by making our courses and programmes attractive to learners, by understanding and meeting the many different needs of our distance learners, by supporting those learners to achieve the qualifications that they need and want. And of course we have got the internet to help us meet those needs. So, what forms of content, of support and tuition, of peer communication will we develop and nurture online to guide and support our online distance learners?

Answering those questions will be a core part of my role which I can’t wait to get stuck into. There are many other key questions that we will need to develop answers to in order to be successful. Here are just some of the many interesting ones that I am motivated to develop good answers to:

  • How can we make online distance learning at HE level attractive to school leavers? UDOL is not solely or principally about an offer for school leavers but there is clearly a growing interest in alternative modes of HE amongst them.
  • How can we develop online distance learning at HE level that widens access to Higher Education?
  • What are the organisational, contractual and financial models that we will need to develop to enable the production of high quality content and the provision of high quality tuition and support for online distance learning programmes across a university?
  • How do we develop online distance learning programmes that will be attractive to the very web savvy young people currently leaving the great primary schools that I have been exposed to while at the National College – schools like Robin Hood in Birmingham, Hawes Side in Blackpool and Heathfield in Bolton amongst many others?

While the role definitely has a learning technology focus, I increasingly feel that it shares a lot with the headteachers and school leaders I have worked with and been exposed to at The National College with their responsibility for the leadership of teaching and learning across their schools. I’ve been very fortunate to work with so many good people who do that so well, so I’ll be taking a lot of their lessons with me. My e-learning work at the College has not involved as much programme and course design work as I have enjoyed in previous roles, so there’s also an element of going back to my roots in the new role. To pinch and paraphrase a line from The Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Black Treacle’: it’s time to walk the walk and not catch the train. Roll on January.

Image CC BY-NC-ND Chris Eccles

Stuart Sutherland

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