Seventeen heads are better than one: how institutional collaboration strengthens online courses | Succeeding with online learning

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The University of London’s internationally recognised degrees provide added value through close links to global institutions and professional bodies.
Photograph: Oscar Wong/Getty Images

The University of London (UoL) is a federation of 17 institutions – impressive universities in their own right, from the London School of Economics (LSE) to University College London (UCL) and City, University of London, among others. “If you had to invent a structure for this moment it would look like us,” says vice-chancellor, Prof Wendy Thomson CBE. “The federal structure gives us the benefit of networking across some of the best universities in the world.” 

There are three different types of collaboration that make UoL unique, says Thomson. First, UoL is able to reap the benefits of collaboration between world-leading member institutions. This means it has the ability to draw on top academic expertise, maintain a global focus and ensure courses are topical and relevant. “It allows us to make sure we are in touch with the burning issues of social concern,” says Thomson. 

This is evident during the current pandemic; six members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which advises the UK government on Covid-19 policy, are from UoL institutions, while researchers at UoL’s School of Advanced Study and King’s College London recently ensured loss of taste and smell was added to the official list of symptoms for the disease. 

A collaborative approach also allows for better delivery of programmes. “We have a unique ability to tap into world-class expertise, and to turn it into a well-designed education programme, and deliver it around the world,” Thomson says. Courses are stronger, more relevant for our students and potential employers, due to our collaboration. Whether it’s computer studies and technology programmes, such as the MSc in data science, developed with Goldsmiths, or the recently launched BSc in psychology with King’s College London, they all draw on the latest academic expertise for students who wish to study online. 

A federal structure also means online courses can be updated and refreshed more effectively. “When we’re deciding which programmes to update we’re not just having conversations with one institution, but with many,” says Thomson.

The second form of collaboration that is of huge value to UoL relates to its network of global teaching centres. The university works with more than 120 institutions all over the world. “This is what makes our approach novel – Covid-19 permitting, we have face-to-face learning opportunities in many locations, which sit alongside the online content,” says Thomson.

This tried and tested collaborative network enabled UoL to move exams online quickly and successfully when it became clear students wouldn’t be able to sit them in person due to the pandemic. 

Third, UoL has effective collaborations with professional bodies, and courses that are industry recognised. “Many of our degrees are employer-driven, and employment-oriented, so they do require accreditation from professional bodies,” says Thomson. 

Examples include the university’s popular undergraduate law degree, or its master’s in professional accountancy, which has been created in collaboration with the industry body ACCA, and is believed to be the only one of its kind. “These qualifications are set to rigorous high standards, because they give people entry or access into the profession and a licence to practice,” says Thomson. 

Students gain from the institution’s federal structure. In UoL’s latest student experience survey carried out in 180 countries, students said its good reputation, strengthened by having a number of world-leading universities under its umbrella, was important to them. Flexibility, cost and breadth of courses and modules were also significant, they said. 

A federal structure allows for a global education. “We can meet the increasing demand for higher education around the world,” says Thomson. “You can’t physically build enough university campuses quickly enough to do that, but we can scale up and swiftly meet the demand of as many students who want to study. We can deliver to students worldwide.”

Online learning at a federal institution means students can gain academic expertise while studying in their own country. “When travel is so difficult, the flexibility to study online becomes really important,” says Thomson. “Under the University of London’s federal structure, we have 17 members that are world-class universities in their own right – and they’re at the top of their game in research and delivering timely and relevant higher education. For most of our students, the ability to have a degree that’s recognised internationally is a really important feature in planning their future.” 

Thomson adds: “The fact that we were established to provide access to education for everyone who could benefit from it, was innovation in itself. And we’ve come a long way since our examination papers were first shipped over to Mauritius by boat in 1865 to today in 2020, when our students can access exams and programmes online all over the world.” 

Find out more about University of London programmes here

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