Online education to support digital skills training for economic growth 

growth of online education, digital education

Digitalisation continues to grow in many sectors, resulting in significant demand for skills-based education and training – Here, Professor Neil Morris argues for growth of online education

Millions of individuals in the UK do not have ‘the essential digital skills for life and work[i]. In 2017, the UK Government called for a major shift in the provision of digital skills training, to meet the demands of the industry during the so-called ‘4th industrial revolution’[ii]. The UK Government’s Digital Strategy places great emphasis on the need for digital skills: ‘For the UK to be a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone, it is crucial that everyone has the digital skills they need to fully participate in society’[iii].

Demand for digital skills

Prior to the pandemic, advances in technology were already disrupting industries such as manufacturing, commerce, banking, science, transport, medicine and engineering, and individuals entering these sectors need a high level of digital skills to be employable and productive. However, a UK think-tank estimated that over 12 million people and a million small businesses in the UK do not have sufficient digital skills to prosper[iv]. The Skills Funding Agency estimates that within twenty years 90% of all jobs will require digital skills, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that 14% of global jobs are at risk of automation[v].

Adding to the pressure, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in millions of furloughed workers across the UK, leading to expectations of high unemployment and economic downturn, and will result in long-term shifts in working practices. The move to remote working and online learning has brought into sharp focus the use of digital technology, and the need to embed effective digital activities at scale across all aspects of education, training and work; and has highlighted the extent of the digital skills gap.

Value of digital technology and online education

Digital technologies and online education offer opportunities for individuals to access flexible and inclusive educational opportunities, and enable people to achieve their learning goals[vi]. Embracing digital technologies to enrich education improves learners’ engagement and motivation, and the use of active learning pedagogies enables learners to work creatively and innovatively with their peers and teachers or trainers to co-create knowledge and gain new skills.

It is, however, widely accepted that access to digital technology for education and training is unequal and impacted by factors including social class, gender, age and race. Where learners are able to access online provision, other barriers exist such as the learners’ skills, their ability to engage in meaningful, self-regulated learning, and the context in which the learning is situated. We all need to recognise and manage the limitations of digital technologies, particularly ensuring that learners have equitable access to the required technologies and the Internet, and are supported to get the best use out of technology, through digital skills support. Effort should be focused on reducing digital poverty and reducing inequalities through digital technology.

The demand for tertiary and professional (lifelong) education is growing rapidly, both in Europe and globally. This demand cannot be met solely by the physical growth of existing

universities or training providers, or the creation of new physical universities, and the growth of online education provision will form part of the solution to this challenge. There is growing acceptance of fully online degrees, and other online qualifications and certificates, within governments and employers globally, including in India and the Middle East.

Currently, fully online education provision is most common at postgraduate level, but is increasing in the foundation, undergraduate and professional domains. In addition, there is a large growth of the sub-degree qualification market (e.g. short courses, micro-credentials), largely fuelled by organisations working with online learning platforms[vii]. There are strong indications that this market will grow significantly over the next few years as working professionals seek regular upskilling and reskilling.

Advances in educational technology and online teaching and assessment approaches means that the range of disciplines that can be effectively taught and assessed online has expanded, such that medical and health, science and engineering topics are increasingly being provided as online provision, alongside business, arts and humanities, environmental and social science disciplines.

Role of universities in narrowing the digital skills gap

Leading universities around the world are responding to the demand for higher education qualifications and professional learning through the growth of online education provision[viii], particularly on online learning platforms such as Coursera and FutureLearn[ix]. These platforms have around 120 million registered users between them and offer accredited degrees, micro-credentials and short professional courses, in partnership with universities, private companies and other organisations. The platforms encourage social interaction between learners, through a combination of live (synchronous) and asynchronous activities.

The University of Leeds has a long-standing reputation for delivery of research-based online courses on the FutureLearn and Coursera platforms and has developed over 100 online short courses that have reached 2.5 million learners globally. Within this collection are a suite of online courses on digital skills[x] developed in partnership with the Institute of Coding and FutureLearn – these courses have attracted 800,000 enrolments since March 2020, demonstrating the very strong demand for online learning in key topics. The courses are aimed at individuals seeking upskilling and reskilling in digital skills (e.g. social media, coding, programming, creating online content etc.) and are included in the UK Government Skills Toolkit[xi]. These courses demonstrate the power of partnership and collaboration between universities, organisations and private companies to deliver education and training aimed at skills shortages.

Having a global impact

The University of Leeds’ strategy: Universal Values, Global Change[xii], describes our vision to harnesses our expertise in research and education to shape a better future for humanity, working through collaboration to tackle inequalities, achieve societal impact and drive change. Through a focus on culture, community and impact, we will work in a collaborative partnership to improve our research-based knowledge exchange, increase educational opportunities and enable impact, through the growth of our online education provision.






[v] what-happened-to-jobs-at-high-risk-of-automation-2021.pdf

[vi] 31519301575#bib28



[ix] 00002019/00000001/art00015




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© 2019. This work is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND.

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Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Digital Transformation
University of Leeds
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