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By: Saskia Watts

As 2020 comes to an end, we want to recognize your continued hard work and adaptability in responding to the dramatic changes in education.

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Blog > Perspectives: David Dixon on the potential of digital disruption

October, 8, 2020 . 5 minute read

Perspectives: David Dixon on the potential of digital disruption

INTL_blogimages_digital transformations


This is clearly a significant moment. Looking back in time to the social changes after the plague or the industrial revolution, something akin to that is happening with remote learning and the disruption of education.

In recent years government policy has been to encourage universities to innovate with models which haven’t been wholly successful, at least in part due to legacy systems and ingrained ways of doing things in Higher Education. The current situation is a huge catalyst for innovation and change. The landscape will change significantly.

"Online learning is transformative. It could be available to anybody anywhere in the world and holds the potential for social transformation. The opportunity to improve peoples’ lives is immense."

It’s also an opportunity for universities to continue to thrive in an international market with low marginal costs. Despite this, based on my own experience working in traditional universities, I didn’t see a sufficient will to change. For existing institutions, there are a number of barriers to successfully adopting digital approaches. Digital transformation goes beyond introducing efficiencies. It requires fundamental changes, and that means taking on vested interests, and challenging legacy ways of working. Universities are devolved organisations – their schools operate with a large degree of autonomy, which has benefits in some areas, but not in this one. I observed a lot of trial and error, and a laissez faire approach was the norm. Of course, there were good practices in many universities, but too often they ran alongside mediocre practice, so there was no consistency. Knowledge was not consolidated at an institutional level which made it difficult to communicate, and learn from, both good and bad examples of practice. This may have changed in the past few years, but certainly the events of 2020 mean that the imperative has got greater.


A focus on educational outcomes

As a newer organisation, Kaplan Open Learning (KOL) weren’t encumbered with those existing processes. We did have to invent the wheel, but in some ways, this was easier than trying to mould new ways of working into an existing system. We were able to take a more clearly commercial approach. We also serve a distinct demographic – what works for our, mainly mature students, with life and work experience, won’t directly translate to other universities. Our students have chosen to study online because it fits their lives, but the expectations of 18-year olds are different. We can offer high quality, accredited degrees, but for traditional students, going to university is associated with a whole raft of benefits that go beyond an academic education. Students still have social needs, and just putting your learning materials online doesn’t solve that.

"It’s clear that in higher education one does not size fit all. There are lessons that traditional universities can learn from us in how to implement online learning but also lessons they will have to learn for themselves."

As an organisation, we have a focused on trying to understand what students are doing, what contributes to better outcomes, and to better understand the learning process. One of our earliest findings was that students who are engaged do better. We looked at what students are doing on the learning platform and identified key activities which impact on their outcomes. VitalSource were working with us to make the best use of the platform. We explored other solutions which promised a great deal, but VitalSource was one who delivered. For us it was important that they provided access to a broad range of texts from multiple publishers.


Scalability and innovation

We were trying to develop a scalable educational model, and one of the non-scalable elements was the physical media. When we started in 2007, we were sending physical texts out to our students, both in the UK and across the globe. The opportunity to use to eBooks offered huge administrative savings. Moving to eBooks made it a more scaleable proposition – it was more cost effective, not simply because of the opportunity to purchase in bulk, but because the administration was so much more efficient. It became a fixed cost for us, so increasing our student numbers from 100 to 10,000 made little difference. This allowed us to grow more quickly.

Our teaching staff are flexible and innovative, which is why they have chosen to work with us. They were very happy with the project. At the outset, some of the student were less happy with the change and were reticent about moving to digital. However, this was just the group who experienced the transition. They had established ways of working and found it hard to imagine the benefits. However, having persevered, now, when you talk to students who had never had the physical text, they are extremely positive about the experience.


Advantages of digital

Changing the nature of the content made a difference to the ease of use. It was easy to integrate the eBooks into our model of teaching. We could link directly to the content, which made it easier and more direct for students. There is an argument that providing material in this way prevents students from exploring and discovering content themselves. However, the question is deciding which is most important, the students reading the content, or the process of finding it. Even teaching face-to-face, I found students read the content when I put it outside my office, but not when they had to track it down in the library.

We could control which version of the book students used and influence their experience whilst in the book.

"Leveraging the text let us make changes in how we communicated with the students. It enabled us to innovate and to trial ideas, such as the annotating the texts to guide the students. This was a relevant and immediate way to enrich the learning experience, and it had an impact on behaviour patterns. Students began using the text more, and at times that were more closely tied to the course objectives."

The other key advantage was that digital copies gave us greater understanding of what students were doing with the books and how this translated into outcomes. The opportunity to link up the analytics data and our student outcomes was too good to miss. The move to eBooks gave us more insight into what was working. We could see when, how, and how often students were accessing them.

"Learning is an incredibly complex process and data is invaluable."

We combine information from various sources to give us insights into how students learn, their books, their demographics, and more. In contrast, we were blind to how students used physical copies of texts, although we knew some students were simply photocopying them and immediately selling the books on.

As well as initiatives such as annotating the books, we’ve made a number of other changes based on what we have learned. We have changed the nature of our modules, moving beyond traditional, linear routes through learning outcomes. We have introduced narrative modules, with developing scenarios, bigger case studies and gamification. We’ve experimented with swapping the sequencing of modules to see the impact. Our work with VitalSource is part of this exploration. It has provided another perspective that enables us to better adapt the learning environment for students, and another measure of student engagement which is important in terms of student outcomes.

Student support is really very important for online learners. We have come to see that this area is a real unique selling point. Our success revolves around using data. We are not yet using AI for student support, but our student support team utilise the dashboard and automated communications system that relies on learner analysis. The team is able to access a dashboard to identify students who haven’t engaged with us in the last week. This allows us to provide bespoke, human support for who potentially have problems.

"Monitoring engagement is a non-invasive way of supporting students."

If you can construct a really engaging learning experience, it is not onerous for the students. Looking at their usage data doesn’t add to their workload in the way that additional assignments or surveys would. That ability to target support is key to scalability. It’s difficult to anticipate the many ways in which students need support. As a university, you won’t always get it right, but you do need to make it clear that you care and are listening to them.

We have developed a really effective educational solution. Our student outcomes are amongst the best in the sector. I believe this gives us the foundation to scale up our model and provide the offer to a bigger audience. VitalSource is one of the elements that enables us to do that.

Join Anu Laitakari and Stephen Livesey from Kaplan Open Learning on 11th November, when they will take an in-depth look at the findings from our latest white paper, Investigating the relationship between engagement and learning outcomes in an online learning environment. Register now! 

About David:

David Dixon has been the Academic Director for Kaplan Open Learning for 13 years. He is a committed egalitarian and secularist and believes that education is key to promoting social and economic welfare. He has a long-standing commitment to ‘life-long learning’ and widening access to education.

David Dixon Headshot


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