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The Role of ICT in Widening Participation


The government’s current aim is to widen participation across both further and higher education, and specifically to enrol 50% of the population into HE before the age of 30, as part of its life-long and life-wide learning agenda. Widening participation is a long-term process of social and cultural change and the key challenge for the sector is to attract (and keep) people with no background of, or current aspirations to, study at university. The solution undoubtedly lies in a systematic approach across all education sectors. the University must aim to work towards a shared sense of ownership of WP issues within the institution and towards developing partnerships beyond its boundaries as enablers in student recruitment, retention and progression.

E -learning has an important role to play in helping the University to become ‘fit-for-purpose’ in responding to the widening participation agenda in the FE and HE sectors and in assisting students to participate, progress and succeed in their learning. In exploring how e-learning development can support WP objectives, a holistic approach is required that takes account of WP issues when planning strategically elsewhere in the University. How an institution organises itself to meet such challenges and respond to educational innovation to support new areas is worthy of reflection. In institutions that appear to adapt effectively, success is dependent on the extent of joined up thinking, in terms of its broad visions and leadership, mutually reinforcing strategies and planning and, in particular, the capacity to evaluate its own purposes and practices.

  Aligning strategies for learning development

Strategies for e-learning development – and the IT infrastructure requirements - must support a range of academic activities from which more tailored innovations might be explored to enhance widening participation specifically. With regard to this, the location of e-learning in the University’s decision making structure is crucial and strong alliances with quality enhancement, learning development and staff development are as important as those with IT and library services.

With regard to widening participation, institutions must align their strategies and developments in ways that can cope with increased student numbers and a dwindling resource base. At the same time, it must meet the wider needs and interests of students who are traditionally under-represented and help them to achieve their maximum potential. The University needs to reach out into the commu nity to raise awareness and aspirations. It needs to offer potential students flexible ways to remove the barriers to gaining access as well as promote an unthreatening view of participation in F/HE. It must also be effective in guiding and nurturing students as they embark and progress through a programme of study.

  What e-learning can deliver

E-learning offers innovative approaches to learning, teaching and assessment, including: new ways of communicating between staff and students; distributed learning and teaching resources; a wide range of media for curricular enrichment; contemporary approaches to assessment and accreditation; provision of research findings and subject resources; facilitated access to web-based learning tools and materials through student portals; identification and creation of ‘re-usable’online resources; management of electronic library resources; and the administration and recording of learning. Such e-learning approaches can enhance students’experience of learning and encourage them to work critically and reflectively, independently and collaboratively; skills of great importance in later study and employment.

  E-learning to support access and participation

In terms of teaching, learning and assessment, the benefits that e-learning may bring to a University are well documented: including wider access to more relevant learning content and multimedia resources, increased opportunities for interaction, just-in-time, flexible and personalised learning, repurposing of content. There is also a broad role for e-learning in supporting the University’s outreach activities, in the way that ICT can deliver online components of marketing and communications strategies to raise awareness and aspirations, particularly via web-based information and interactions.

While more and more aspects of everyday life are centred on information and communications technologies, there is however still evidence of a digital divide with some groups having better access to technology than other s. This presents obvious implications for the role of e-learning in WP. Access to computing equipment, library and IT facilities and to e-learning materials and e-activities can both empower and restrict learners. There are also a number of intrinsic tensions for e-learning developers. For example, the desire to create rich e-learning resources that enhance the learning experience whilst at the same time improving accessibility of learning to disabled students.

The extent to which potential students have access to computers and the Internet in order to participate fully, as well as the usability of equipment and materials to those with disabilities and learning difficulties, are important considerations if the University wants to use e-approaches to widen participation. E-learning can certainly provide an effective means to help achieve a number of WP objectives, but it is imperative to adopt a range of approaches to remove the different obstacles to widening participation without creating new ones.

One approach is to consider which e-learning methods are effective in driving participation by the different groups, taking into account the likely barriers, and to cater for their needs accordingly. For example, some aspects of e-learning do not require a computer and connection to the Internet and can be delivered by CD-ROM, video, television and telephone or combinations as appropriate to the students needs. It will be important to identify the extent to which ‘assistive technologies’ or the design of ‘accessible multimedia’ can improve the use of such materials by students with disabilities. Lack of tutor contact and social interaction on a course are key problem areas for retention. The arrangement of event-based or online learning activities should take into account the level of access in order to ensure students have sufficient interaction with tutors and peers and effective feedback on their learning experience and progress

  E-learning to support retention and progression

Changes in the curriculum should aim to meet the aspirations or needs of the wider range of students. Shifts in the teaching/delivery methods should be led by pedagogical rather than economical, technical or administrative concerns. In relation to teaching, learning and assessment strategy, the approaches of the institution need to take account of the types of learning it is seeking to develop and the learners it is seeking to recruit. The latter will require regular revisiting through surveys, polls, focus groups and ICT may also have a role to play in assisting these processes. The more you know about your students individual background and preferences, the more likely you are to put appropriate measures in place to ensure that they not only come to the University, but stay and do well once here. For example, the use of online learning style tests can be used to locate and target individual learning preferences with a view to providing, if appropriate, self-paced, repetitive, remedial support.

Student support and development of skills are common elements of LTA and WP strategies and e-learning can support “inclusive learning” in a variety of ways. An integrated system of e-learning materials that offers guidance to students from pre-entry to post-award can be offered online and on demand.

Actual choices of e-learning based guidance and support to students must change in accordance with the curriculum needs and the kind of learning a particular programme of study is aiming to develop. For example:

  • A content-based curriculum - skills-driven learning – will need to be more self-paced with instructor or facilitator support to develop specific knowledge and skills.
  • An objectives-based curriculum - attitude-driven learning – will need to mix various events and delivery media to develop specific behaviours.
  • A process-based curriculum - competency-driven learning – will need to blend performance support tools with knowledge management resources and mentoring to develop workplace skills and research-like capabilities.

E-mentoring has been used to improve participation by students from traditionally under-represented groups during induction and on-course. It aims to “help change attitudes to HE, make more effective the application procedure and promote the development of students as confident and effective learners” (Kingston University).

  Developing staff capability in e-learning

Investment and reward mechanisms within the institution are vital to engaging staff to bring about changes in their teaching that contribute to WP objectives. A clear framework for evaluating progress against targets in this area will require data to be gathered from sources that cross the traditional boundaries of structure and function and e-learning may be a useful focus for strategic partnerships within the University and in regional and national professional development networks.

The challenge for educational developers might be seen to rest with shifting teaching towards more flexible and interactive working practices. Change will therefore not occur solely through development of the ICT infrastructure or production of e-materials, but in empowering the workforce to support large number of more diverse students as they enter and progress through higher education. The research shows that high involvement of tutors is the most important factor in enhancing retention. The challenge is how to develop effective online teaching skills, particularly e-tutoring and e-moderating, and how to manage ‘e’-overload on the part of both staff and students.

HR strategies need to focus on building capacity to respond to educational innovation and developing expertise in terms of staff development and rewards systems that recognise excellence in achieving WP objectives. Effective vehicles for developing e-learning capability of staff have been formal accredited programmes, opportunities to gain e-tutoring experience, local funds to support teaching development projects, and peer observation schemes.

  Marketing and delivering e-learning

E-learning developments should work towards high levels of branding, functionality and usability in all materials produced. A strong sense of organisation, provision and commitment is needed. The web particularly enables the University to provide a very clear and up-to-date view of what it is about, what is offers and how it goes about its business. Quality is crucial: uniform and accessible materials delivered through a well-designed web architecture. Site promotion is important in providing optimum visibility by search engines (so if someone is searching for a course on ‘hospitality management’, it finds one at The University before finding one anywhere else!)

Seamless exchange of student data is beneficial in dealing efficiently with student enquiries: for example, easy access to information concerning admissions, registrations, enrolment, assessment and examinations. A single web architecture offers a cohesive approach to information management and e-learning. It can provide enormous benefit in linking learning management, delivery of online services and supporting learning activities in a reasonably cost-effectiveness way in terms of investment and staff time/effort. However, a one size fits all web environment is likely to cause difficulties as services need to work in the much more complex environment that brings together the different student needs and learning preferences, teaching orientations and subject-specific requirements.

A corporate strategy and strong communications team is essential, coupled with those that understand how the web can work to best advantage. Nevertheless, traditional and e-related, approaches should be blended to include various offline and online materials and event-based and web-based activities.

  Cost-effectiveness of e-learning

Findings from a study determining the costs of widening participation (HEFCE/Universities UK, April 2002) backed up the widely expressed opinion within the HE sector that “students from non-traditional backgrounds are significantly more expensive to recruit, retain and progress through their HE careers than the traditional ‘norm’”. These additional costs were found to be much greater than the revenues provided through post-code premiums and WP funding support. Sadly, the impact of this was a subsidy of staff time away from other activities and reduction in the overall quality of provision for students.

E-learning is not necessarily a cheap alternative to traditional campus-based learning. The production of high quality, computer- or video-based multimedia resources is expensive. However, there are many forms of e-learning materials that offer advantages in terms of flexibility, interactivity and integration with other forms of learning, which can result in savings in the long run. Maximisation of available resource is essential if e-learning is be an enabler in WP objectives. For example, in the case with electronic materials, current e-learning practice is moving away from developing whole modules for online (or distance delivered) courses to creating the resources that form the components of these blocks of learning – “reusable learning objects”. This area is the subject of much scholarly debate about the properties of e-learning objects in terms of granularity, storage and retrieval, and how they are linked and integrated with other units of learning (Wiley, 2002). It offers flexibility in the re-purposing of materials and media to support campus-based, blended and distance taught courses.

  Achieving WP outcomes through e-learning

It is interesting to consider how e-learning methods and materials can be tailored to diminish some of the obstacl es to participation identified for under-represented groups. There are obvious areas in participation, access, retention and progression where ICT can play a role. The table below att empts to map some examples of what e-learning can offer across these three broad objectives. A focus on outcomes rather than inputs or activities helps to distinguish areas where e-learning development can support the specific WP objectives.


         WP outcomes: 

         E-LEARNING offers: 





Awareness raising (raising aspirations)
  • making processes more transparent: examples of student work; taster sessions of online courses to targeted groups
  • new markets and wider learning opportunities via online study.
  Community building
  • online networks to support regular partnership dialogues
  • ability to deliver e-learning modules or programmes jointly with other organisations
  • interactive community-based activities
  • online polling and surveying.
  Presence in schools and colleges and the work place
  • opportunities to reach out through videoconferencing, Chat or tv/videostreaming.
  • on-going dialogues with work-based learners





Flexible learning
  • ubiquitous computing, wireless networks, broadband
  • virtual environments for blended or distance learning
  • self-paced assignments & tutor feedback
  Wider access to rich and accessible learning materials
  • content management
  • re-usable learning objectsmultiple media to enrich learning
  • assistive technologies, accessible multimedia
  • support for special educational needs such as dyslexia
  Increased support for distance and blended courses
  • email, virtual tools
  • community networks for remote exchanges





Strong targeting and tracking process

  • consistency in the quality of learning materials (not just for recruitment marketing) to maintain student expectations
  • information management and student records systems linked to learning activities
  •  regular feedback through diagnostic and formative computer assisted assessment and course evaluation systems

Flexibility against constraints of travel and workload

  • means to deliver more distance taught courses or some modules or learning activities supported online
  • ability to provide regular updates and distribute new materials via bulletin systems
  • any place, any time, self-paced assignments and flexible tutor support
  Quality and management of learning content
  • web tools (VLE) that makes publishing and delivering content to appropriate standards easier
  •  re-usable learning objects (materials, media, chunks of learning)
  • availability of interactive materials in a wide range of media
  • access to electronic libraries and subject gateways
  Tutoring and mentoring
  • seamless and regular correspondence via email, online discussion and group work can increase the availability and flexibility of tutor and peer support
  • e-mentoring schemes can help deal with student concerns about study or achievement
  • means to delivery equally flexible support for teaching and learning support staff to develop their capabilities in e-learning and e-tutoring





Skills development

  • online modules for developing students’ generic skills, such as ICT, library skills, research skills, which prepare them for both study & employment
  • online discussions and group work to avoid withdrawal of students in large classes
  •  feedback from assignments can be timely and diagnostic through online quizzes and tutor dialogues.
  Personal development planning
  • e-portfolios (PDPs) to support student reflection on their own purposes, working practices and learning experiences and achievements

On-going support

  • social interactions through online networks for students living off campus
  • learning hubs to bring the University and employers closer together
  Higher order learning
  • process tools; access to research
  • accessing & networking with remote experts




  Priorities for development

Developing capacity

  • Leadership & “thinking out of the box”
  • Sustainable e-learning
  • Partnerships and outreach
  • Curriculum innovation
  • Disabilities/special needs
  • Quality & standards
  • Human resources


  • Strategic partnerships
  • Standards for baseline facilities & accessibility
  • Digital resources & re-usable learning objects
  • e-learning and e-admin (MLE/VLE)


  • Innovation in shortage subject areas
  • Assessment & credit framework to fit e-learnin g
  • Process-orientated approaches to skills development
  • Learning support through diagnosis & reflection


  • Enhancing & recognising staff capability in e-learning
  • Communities of practice for CPD & work-based learning
  • Establishing evaluation practices for e-learning