Spotlight on: Fully Online Education

The University of Leeds continues to develop an exciting new avenue in its educational offering to students. Having already launched two Fully Online programmes since 2019, and with a third in progress, the broadening in focus from purely on-campus programme delivery to that of Fully Online too means a more flexible approach is in full swing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people turned to online solutions to stay connected and reach their goals, and so have had their eyes opened to the benefits of Fully Online Education (FOE). The University’s new offering meets the needs of this widening audience – where conflicting commitments such as career, family life or location previously served as a barrier to higher education.

Helen Durham, Academic Lead for Online Education, is driving the Fully Online Agenda in line with the University’s new digital transformation strategy. Helen currently splits her work time between this academic leadership role and her role as Associate Professor in Geographical Information Science and Education in the School of Geography. This variety in scope allows Helen to operate with a wide remit, shaping the digital agenda, and also keeps her up-to-date with the latest advances in the university’s digital drive for fully online degrees.

We asked Helen a few questions to get a feel for where we’ve been as a university in the realm of online education, and where we’re headed in the not too distant future…

What led you into the Fully Online Education sphere?

I was a distance learning student myself in the 1990s, gaining an MSc in Geographical Information Systems (GIS). As someone who, at the time, had a full-time job and a young family, this mode of delivery suited me and completing that degree opened the door to the role of GIS Research Officer at the University of Leeds. For over 20 years I have been developing online resources, carrying our pedagogical research on online learning and teaching on a fully online programme offered by the School of Geography. Since 2010 I have been Programme Leader of that fully online degree and seen online education go from strength to strength. At the time of signing up to do a distance learning degree in 1992, I never imagined where it would take me but online education removed barriers for me and has contributed to a very successful career at the University, culminating in this amazing opportunity as a champion of online education.

What’s been the most exciting part of your journey so far?

Definitely seeing the fruition of ideas for fully online degrees into viable proposals that are now moving along the pipeline towards development. It has been really exciting to engage with colleagues, experts in their field, and who are so enthusiastically wanting to play their part in growing the online provision. For example, earlier in the year we held workshops on Data Science and Digital Transformation that brought together colleagues from all faculties across the University to contribute to two fully online degree proposals that build on our research strengths. The development of the proposals for these degrees has been a real collaborative effort, and it is exciting to note that initial market insight suggests that both have global market demand. There is a way to go with those particular journeys but the destinations will definitely be worth watching out for.

What do you hope to achieve in the Fully Online sphere by 2022-23?

It would be great to be on, or even above, target for the number of fully online degrees outlined in the Fully Online Education strategy. We currently have two degrees launched in partnership with Pearson, with several more on the roadmap to delivery over the next 12-18 months. We are currently exploring some exciting opportunities with Coursera and FutureLearn and I really hope to see our degree presence on those platforms in the coming year too. Having experienced online education as both a student and an educator I have been able to bring those different perspectives to the table in my role as Academic Lead for Online Education and my dream would be to see fully online degrees sit alongside our on-campus degrees, complementing and broadening our provision, and for the University of Leeds to be a globally recognised target provider of online education.

This is such an exciting time for the University of Leeds and the enthusiasm from our staff behind our FOE programme development has been fantastic. Alongside our Engineering Management and Artificial Intelligence Master’s, a few other programmes are soon to be announced, so watch this space for new Fully Online Degrees over the next few months.