Covid-19 has driven a surge in the number of Scots choosing to undertake degrees and other courses online, according to the Open University.

Bosses at the institution have attributed the near-20 per cent rise in students north of the Border to increased demand for skills-boosting opportunities as society recovers from the pandemic.

They say that virus-related disruption has heightened the appeal of good quality distance education, with tens of thousands affected by redundancy, furlough, sectoral change and home working.

Statistics show the total number of students in 2020/21 – which includes undergraduates, postgraduates and apprenticeships, but not degrees validated with partner providers – jumped to almost 21,700.

Specialist short courses known as “microcredentials” are proving particularly popular as Scots seek the rapid acquisition of skills in areas such as cyber-security and leadership.

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Susan Stewart, OU Director in Scotland, said her institution was “heartened” by the latest data.

“Our student numbers have increased every year since 2012-13 but it was much more marked over the past year,” she added.

“What we can see is a pattern of steady growth year on year but that the figure really shot up over the last year.”

Breakdown statistics show students were based in every Scottish parliamentary constituency – from the Shetland Isles to Dumfries and Glasgow – and enrolled for modules in a wide range of subjects.

These include psychology, childhood studies, mathematics and criminology. OU leaders also highlighted growing demand for classes offered through the free OpenLearn platform, with areas such as early years attachment and understanding autism emerging as particularly big draws.

HeraldScotland: Susan Stewart is the Open University's Director in Scotland.Susan Stewart is the Open University's Director in Scotland.

“Psychology remains our most popular subject – and that’s true in all four nations of the UK,” said Ms Stewart.

“Our microcredential courses have also soared in popularity.

“Lots of students have been looking to take up short courses to boost their digital skills – in cyber security, for example – or in areas such as leadership in times of uncertainty.

“I think the demand for microcredential courses, and for short courses in general, will only increase as post-pandemic changes to the economy occur.”

OU figures indicating significantly increased interest in distance and online classes come as some higher education institutions – among them St Andrews and Edinburgh – appear set to maintain blended learning arrangements into the autumn term.

University representatives say the plans, which have drawn an angry response from many students, are the result of continued uncertainty over which coronavirus restrictions will be in place later this year.

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But some observers argue there are now clear signs that institutions are moving towards the creation of a permanent role for digital and online teaching.

Ms Stewart said the shift in approach had begun even before Covid-19 hit, adding that the OU was well positioned to benefit.

“In terms of the marketplace for distance learning, there’s space for everyone,” she told The Herald.

HeraldScotland: Edinburgh University reportedly expects large lectures to be held online.Edinburgh University reportedly expects large lectures to be held online.

“We have a particular niche, which is part-time, flexible, distance learning, and we’re extremely good at it.

“But I think that the wider higher education landscape will see more universities introduce a degree of [regular] online learning into their course offer. It was a change that was coming and the pandemic has accelerated it.”

Ms Stewart stressed that education opportunities offered by her institution would play a vital role in underpinning Scotland’s social and economic recovery from Covid-19.

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“Re-skilling and up-skilling were always an important part of the OU’s offer and they are vital now,” she said.

“It’s a case of making sure people can learn as they earn.

“We’ve always offered distance learning, which is now really coming into its own as a result of the pandemic.”

Ms Stewart added: “The OU in Scotland has already been responsive to the pandemic by offering funded skills modules to those affected by furlough, redundancy, or sector transformation.

“As well as these targeted courses for individuals and businesses, we have also experienced unprecedented interest in accessing our free learning platforms as people look to re-position for work in a future economy.

“With uncertainty in the economy set to continue into 2021, more agile provision, open to people at all stages of life and delivered flexibly, will be an essential part of Scotland’s recovery.” 

ANALYSIS

The Open University has a unique place in British society.

As any fan of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita will know, one of its defining missions is to provide learning to those who failed to achieve their academic potential earlier in life.

The OU’s open admissions policy has also turned it into a giant. With over 175,000 students, it is easily one of the largest universities in Europe.

Nevertheless, its latest Scottish figures help to illuminate a common trend emerging across further and higher education as institutions adapt in response to the unprecedented disruption wrought by Covid-19.

Earlier this month, some universities sparked controversy after suggesting a mix of campusbased and online teaching would continue into the autumn due to uncertainty over virus restrictions.

The signs are that this position is being driven by more than just the immediate pressures of the pandemic.

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Observers note a growing recognition among university leaders that remote learning arrangements have highlighted how digital tools can provide convenience and ease of access.

Those same qualities, underpinned by technology, partly explain surging enrolments at the OU in Scotland.

Its expertise in distance education and flexible structures are understandably a big draw for busy, working-age adults who want to boost skills and make progress in the wake of Covid-19.

There are, of course, limits to the amount of activity that can be shifted online, and many students will insist on the continuation of in-person teaching.

But, increasingly, it looks as if digital learning is about to assume a permanent and more prominent place in Britain’s college and university landscape.