Friday, 21 June 2013

Ultraversity and BA LTR

The Ultraversity project was initiated by Stephen Heppell at The Ultralab in 2003 with the initial aim of researching new approaches to undergraduate study.  The application of a cybernetic analysis in line with Beer's viable systems approach (1985) has been described here: of the key elements of the approach to learning design are also discussed in the Viable Systems post. 

The project team were keen to widen participation to groups who might find it difficult to study via traditional approaches. It was clear to the team that there were a lot of people operating in relatively low paid or voluntary employment and having developed considerable expertise in their role but without the academic background or financial independence to be able to take three years out of the workplace to study a traditional on campus route towards the qualifications they needed to progress their careers. Roles that were high on our agenda included: teaching assistants, lunchtime supervisors, parent volunteer helpers in schools, nurses, self employed, small business employees and more.  In the UK the Open University were the main institution offering distance learning opportunities but courses were usually part time, involved travel to tutorial group meetings or summer schools and were studied over 6 years. That is a long time over which to sustain motivation. One of the key research questions was how to create a viable approach that would enable this group and other learners to study while still actively employed and to achieve a full honours degree in considerably less than 6 years. This was reflected in the original validation document that was created before the change from Anglia Polytechnic University (APU) to Anglia Ruskin University:

 "Students targeted are those who are unable to attend university face-to-face and who might benefit from an alternative approach to learning...

The principle aim of the BA Learning, Technology and Research is to provide access to higher education to people who are committed to their work... Students will learn the skills to improve their effectiveness in their particular work context and will develop the ability, and confidence to influence and improve practice within their work setting.

The programme will focus on ‘understanding why and knowing how to’ and will develop individuals to become articulate, critically reflective problem solvers within their work context, in line with the APU aspirations."
2003 validation document available here.

The original aspiration to provide a viable route to HE qualifications for "those who are unable to attend university face-to-face" is still relevant but has evolved in that fully online learning has become desirable for other reasons since the inception of the course. Notable amongst these is the increased flexibility of where and when to study and the potentially greater support available within an active online community environment. The asynchronous dialogic approach to learning is key to achieving this.

The Ultraversity project ran from 2003 until 2006, the research lead to the development of the 'BA (Hons.) Learning, Technology and Research'  degree. Students reported that they and employees felt the combination of Learning, Technology and Research was attractive in the title of the degree and that the three themes were very much reflected in the course design, however it was the 'Ultraversity' brand that most of them used when talking about the course. They would refer to studying the Ultraversity degree or having graduated from Ultraversity.  For staff, students and a range of other stakeholders the short form 'UV' became synonymous with the BA LTR course. As time progressed the BA LTR course outlived the Ultraversity Project but the Ultraversity label was still in wide use and the reflective and action based iterative research principles were retained by staff as a means of personal and course development.

Beer, S., 1985. Diagnosing The System for Organisations. John Wiley, London and New York, NY.

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