In Conversation with...

Ian Myatt, Director of Educational Enterprise

We sat down with Ian Maytt to catch up with him one year after launching three wholly online courses and to discuss the developement and future of Online Learning in Higher Education


Obviously you department is always looking for new oppurtunies for online learning but what are the benifits to this approach?

I think there are a number of reasons to take an online approach to learning from a s student point of view it offers them the chance to study a quality course fully online with a flexible approach to learning

From an academic perspective it presents the opportunity to reinvent your course for a digital age. Taking what you know works well and forcing yourself to think about it differently about how best to use technology to create a compelling experience

One thing I have noted from academics whom I have worked with in the development of online courses (whether full degrees or MOOCs) is that they have enjoyed the challenge of thinking differently about the way they approach their course design.


How has Educational Enterprise responded to and tried to understand the changing needs of students?

One of the things I am trying to do is trying to encourage people to view things from a student perspective. There is a need to understand where they are coming from. Students are arriving at University with a huge numbers of expectations of how technology is used in both education and life in general. I don’t believe in using tech for tech sake but would rather focus on trying to understand the desired outcomes and how technology can assist with the realisation of these outcomes.

Drawing on my previous experience working at the BBC, something that has struck me is that the students arriving on campus this autumn have never known life without the internet and were 8 years old when we launched BBC I player. They come from a world that has not really known media without it being instant and on demand. This will have shaped their expectations around how content is delivered.


With any new initiative that is operating in a new space there will be challenges; do any in particular stand out and how have you overcome them?

At the heart of the Educational Enterprise agenda is the desire to do things differently. Some things will work, and some things will fail, but everything will involve a degree of change. Change is often treated with uncertainty; people can be a bit hesitant and feel a loss of control,  so there is a real need to bring people on that journey. The challenge for us is bring people on board so we can help them navigate through doing new things for the first time. There is no right answer and therefore there is a need for pioneers to work with conviction to work toward finding appropriate solutions that can then act as a guide to others.

By and large you are pushing against tradition of culture and systems and process, one of the things that strikes’ me about the university is that the annual cycle is fairly consistent. We are very good at the annual events, incredibility good at open days, examinations, clearing and graduations. We have had years of experience at it and we know we are good at it. The stuff I am doing is new, it comes with uncertainty and we are still finding our way.


What is it that you think students and educators gain from an Educational Enterprise approach to learning?

I think the thing that sums it up best is the opportunity to do things differently, but not simply for the sake of it. I would like to think that students gain a more flexible and innovative experience and I would like to think that educators feel challenged to make even better educational experiences.

One of the things that we have been doing is teaming up academics with instructional designers, both of which I think are educators, that partnership in course development is deliberately designed to create a creative tension so that both sides feel challenged to raise the bar.


As part of  a University that prides itself on a strong campus identity how do you translate that character in to an online community?

It is a great challenge, it is not something you can replicate like for like. The last thing I am trying to do is create a virtual online campus in a literal sense. But that sense of community, support and an enjoyable space is absolutely something we can do online. There is a real need to ensure that there is a great student experience across the range of interactions the student has with us, whether that’s the formal part of the course or the less formal touch points they have with the university. We can convey a sense of the identity of the university. Language, tone and the visuals, it’s the whole package

Ultimately though, our online services need to work harder in this space, they tend to be a little clunky and not very joined up. For our distance learning students the interactions we have with them online need to make up for the physical wow you get on campus.


Can you tell us a little more about the power of partnership building both internally and with external partners for a modernising university?

Partnerships are an essential part of doing business and a foundation upon which the University is built it feels particularly pertinent to my mission because really what we are trying to do is be the glue between multiple facets of internal and external expertise. What we perceive the market wants, what current students want and what technology can do. For me, the success or failure of an organisation is down to the way that it behaves as part of a bigger eco system. So hopefully what we are doing is leading by example. The university is a complex organisation. Internal collaboration is needed as is the need to learn best practice from outside. Partnerships also help foresee future trends that we can either capitalise upon or defend against, using knowledge derived from what others are doing both within the industry and in related industries.


Would you like to highlight any particular successes of the department since its founding?

I feel like there’s a lot to be proud off. Launching 3 new, completely online courses that attracted over 150 students across the world in the first 12 months feels like a real achievement, and the AMBA accreditation for the MBA was really  the ‘icing on the cake’

The things I do take real pride in however are some of the less tangible areas where we are influencing the wider university. Our work on the New Student Orientation module (NSO), designed to give students a taster of the university life and a sense of belonging to the University of Birmingham community offers a good example of this. Seeing people react so positively and then it leading to the creation of a university wide resource give me pride in the fact an innovation that we delivered has begun to reap benefits for the wider student population. The same can also be said for the approach that we are now taking for the TEL Hub introducing the partnership managers in the colleges to ensure greater access to technology enhanced learning.


Can you give us any predictions for the future

My main prediction for the future is that there is not really such a thing as alternative modes of delivery. We are moving towards a seamless blend between physical and virtual learning environments with students being able to pick the style that works best for them. Increasingly I think we will see employers and learners looking for more flexible ways of learning that can fit in to and compliment their daily lives, this will be particularly pertinent in the Postgrad and CPD markets. I am also watching the take up of degree apprenticeships with keen interest as they have the potential to be disruptive to the traditional HE market.