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Online learning with Helen Billington, Leeds University

Teaching people digital skills can be severely underrated, given how important they are to day-to-day life. At the University of Leeds, the Digital Education Service is tackling this by providing innovative online learning. We spoke to Helen Billington, Digital Education Service Manager, to find out more.

Helen wants “to make university education equitable and open to all”, which is an admirable – if ambitious – mission statement. However, it’s something she’s able to work on in her position as manager of the University of Leeds’ Digital Education Service, a team of people working to provide students with online learning.

“Our main aim is to help academic staff at the uni to develop online resources; either things that can be used on campus within the university’s virtual learning environment – Minerva – or courses that can be put on the external learning platforms of some of our partners, like FutureLearn,” said Helen.

This is no small challenge, of course. Taking traditional university education and bringing it online is a big task. “It feels like it’s only a small part of the iceberg, because obviously the university itself has a vast amount of knowledge,” Helen said. However, the service has recently focused on recruitment activity as well.

The availability of the internet means that young people have more and more options when it comes to their education and career paths. Helen told us about the resources that the Digital Education Service has to introduce young people to a new subject, and talked about the plans the service has for apprentices.

While in the past, apprentices would have to go on day release to a university in order to learn and gain skills, Helen and the service are changing this by giving young people more options through online learning.

“They can be an apprentice at a university that isn’t necessarily a local one, so they’re not doing day release but they’re doing perhaps a weekend supported by online learning,” she said. This way, they don’t need to be tied to their local area and are free to learn on their own time.

The importance of online learning

This is a crucial part of the Digital Education Service’s work, and Helen believes that online learning is a vital skill for everybody to develop. “I think our main aim is to enable all of the students who come to the University of Leeds to gain the skills to be online learners,” she said, “because if you’re an effective online learner you can access university courses from all over the world on any subject.”

“Online learning means often you can learn the bite-sized bit of information you need, at the point at which you need it. So it’s a lifelong skill to be able to access quality online education to answer the particular question you have at the moment, or the development need you have, or the challenge that you have.”

This is something Helen wants to implement across the university wherever possible. She added: “We would measure success if every student at the University of Leeds did some online learning as part of their degree programme.”

Leeds Digital Festival

Helen and the Digital Education Service will be taking part in Leeds Digital Festival this year, running an event showcasing just some of the technology that the service uses in its own online courses.

“We’ve selected a course that has a really big focus on the City, because it’s on transport planning,” said Helen. “One of the features in that is some drone work and interactive animations about traffic planning at the Weetwood roundabout.”

Participants in the event – which Helen recommends for anyone who is interested in seeing how technology is used in learning, as well as those who might want to get involved in developing or working in online education – will see how interactive animations and drone footage can be used to produce a road system for the future.

So why get involved with the Leeds Digital Festival at all? Helen was clear: “Because we think that digital skills are the skills everybody needs for the future; not just young people starting out on their education or moving into the working world, but as we get older, those of us who didn’t have a digital education in our working life but are moving into retirement will increasingly need to access the things we need through the internet.”

The Digital Education Service is committed to helping all generations develop their online learning skills, and the Leeds Digital Festival is a great place to showcase this.

Details of all Leeds Digital Festival events can be seen here.