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Leeds and Cape Town to study role of technology in the future of higher education


A NEW transcontinental research project will examine the way technology is affecting traditional campus-based degrees.

The Unbundled University: Researching emerging models in an unequal landscape is a 26-month project to explore whether the traditional university package for the student-experience, including teaching, content and assessment - is still relevant.

As part of the project, which has attracted more than £630k of funding from both hemispheres, the Universities of Leeds and Cape Town (UCT) will examine the growing effect of digital technology on staff, students and employers.

The research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), who have provided £494k, and the National Research Foundation in South Africa, which is funding R2 158 000 (£136,641). It is one of five current collaborative research projects about higher education in South Africa.

It comes at a time when the UK sector is moving towards increased marketisation as a result of Government initiatives. whereas, in South Africa, universities are seeking ways to 'level the field' for students who come from highly diverse economic and social backgrounds, with a great deal of disparity in experience of using technology.

Professor Neil Morris, Director of Digital Learning at the University of Leeds, and the research project’s joint principal investigator.

He says: "As well as looking at how digital technology is disrupting higher education, this research will explore how the involvement of alternative providers and external partners is changing the way higher education is offered.

It is an exciting example of international collaboration between two research-intensive universities operating in very different contexts, but facing overlapping challenges.

The success of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has shown that there is increasing interest in more flexible models of higher education, especially those evolving into accredited courses.

READ: Prof. Morris's blog on reimagining traditional learning spaces

The Programs MOOCs at Leeds, for example, offer credit that can be used towards a degree to be taken at any university that will accept it, or used to build a portfolio of awards from a range of universities and other accrediting bodies, in lieu of a degree.

Last year, UCT was ranked as the second-best institution creating MOOCs, according to a report published by MOOC aggregator website Class Central.

READ: LITE's blog: Will online distance learning mean the end of campus-based programmes?

Associate Professor Laura Czerniewicz, joint principal investigator and Director of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at UCT, says: “While there are clearly opportunities offered by new models of provision, there are concerns that ‘unbundled’ higher education can lead to fragmentation of the curriculum, increase inequalities amongst the student body, create a disconnect with the holistic benefits offered by a university experience, and create concerns about quality if a wide range of providers are involved.

“We want to look at these risks and at whose interests this unbundling is serving. Outputs from the project will be shared with higher education decision makers and Government policy makers to help them to make informed decisions about future initiatives in this area.
“The universities of Leeds and Cape Town are similar types of institutions addressing similar issues in different contexts in ways that can only enrich the study.”

For further information, please contact Prue Griffiths, University of Leeds press office,, 0113 343 4360; Elijah Moholola, University of Cape Town press office,, +27 21 650 5674.