Virtual universities – a way forward for the UK AM Federation?

Federation was very much the buzzword in the morning sessions of the second day of the EUNIS conference. Two presentations were on virtual universities that have been created by providing access to course material in the learning management systems (LMSs) from a number of universities. There were common features in the two systems developed for the Andalusian and Bavarian universities. The systems were using federated access to link LMSs at a number of universities in the region – in both cases there was a variety of LMS systems in use at the universities taking part. The systems allowed students at the participating universities and colleges to take online courses based at the other institutions in the respective systems, gaining credit for the programmes they are registered on in their home institutions.

One of the key factors in setting up both was the senior management buy-in in the institutions involved. In Spain, the rectors of the Andalusian universities identified that they needed to provide cross-institution access to courses and provided funds to make it happen. There were similar drivers in Bavaria. So what has resulted in both cases are federations designed with a clear purpose – access to applications – and which are and continue to be well funded. In the Bavarian case ongoing funding includes the costs of developing and maintaining course material, and the costs of supporting online tutoring.

Both are good examples of collaborative activity delivered over a robust infrastructure. In the UK the Access Management Federation is one of the largest in the world but there does not seem to be any sort of collaboration on the scale highlighted in Spain and Germany (I hope to be proved wrong). What is stopping it? Firstly there is the political will – we already have a solution in that the UK Federation but whilst the many potential uses of it have been highlighted many times over the years, this has often been by IT people to IT people. So the powers that be perhaps do not know the benefits it may deliver. The regional influence is less strong in the UK but perhaps there is scope for virtual universities in Wales and Scotland where the links between Government and the sector are closer than they are in England. But then there is a resource where there are already many courses and programmes that could fulfil a need within many institutions – the Open University. Would federated access to these modules deliver efficiencies in institutions? There was a feasibility study carried out as part of HEFCE’s Shared Services initiatives by the Open University into the possibility of collaborating to provide level 1 modules for popular courses (such as Introduction to statistics). The feasibility study concluded that “although the rationale for sharing curriculum in HE is inescapable, particularly at level one, the obstacles to implementation are substantial”. The prime obstacle is presumably the not invented here syndrome. Isn’t it time that universities’ senior management teams grasped the nettle and made this happen? An effective shared service and wider use of the Federation would surely result.

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