Models for online, open, flexible and technology enhanced higher education across the globe – a comparative analysis

Orr, Dominic; Weller, Martin and Farrow, Robert (2018). Models for online, open, flexible and technology enhanced higher education across the globe – a comparative analysis. International Council for Distance Education.



Digital technology has become near ubiquitous in many countries today or is on a path to reach this state in the near future. Across the globe the share of internet users, for instance, has jumped in the last ten years. In Europe most countries have a share of internet users near to or above 90% in 2016 (last year available for international comparisons), in China the current share is 53%, but this has grown from just 16% in 2007, even in Ethiopia the share has grown from 0.4% to 15.4% in the same period (data from ITU). At the same time expectations of widespread adoption of digital solutions in higher education have been rising. In 2017 the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report predicted that adaptive learning would take less than a year to be widely adopted (Adams Becker et al., 2017). And projects such as ‘Virtually Inspired’ are showcasing creative examples of how new technologies are already being harnessed to improve the quality of teaching and learning. Furthermore, discussion of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals emphasise the key potentials that digital technology holds for achieving the goals for education in 2030 (UNESCO, 2017).

These developments lead university and college leadership to the question of how they should position their institution. What type of digitalisation initiatives can be found practice beyond best practices and future potentials? This is the question that this study attempts to answer. It sets out to analyse how higher education providers from across the world are harnessing digitalisation to improve teaching and learning and learner support and to identify emerging types of practice. For this, it focuses on the dimensions of flexibility of provision (in terms of time, place and pace) and openness of provision (in terms of who has access to learning and support and who is involved in the design of learning provision), as both of these dimensions can significantly benefit from integration of digital solutions.

The method of information collation used by the study was a global survey of higher education institutions (HEIs) covering all world continents, more than thirty countries and 69 cases. The survey found that nearly three-quarters of all HEIs have at least one strategic focus and typologies were developed based on this analysis to group HEIs with similar strategic focuses.

Overall, the findings suggest that most higher education providers are just at the beginning of developing comprehensive strategies for harnessing digitalisation. For this reason, the authors of this study believe that providers can benefit from the outcomes of this study’s research, as it can be used by university and college leadership for benchmarking similarities and differences and for cooperative peer learning between institutions. The database of cases and the guidelines for reviewing current strategies, which accompany this study, aim to facilitate this learning and evaluation process.

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