Powerful Online Learning Community – the Ultraversity Project #41 #cong19


Ultraversity was a new design for undergraduate, work-focussed, inquiry based learning for those students for whom university did not fit. It ran from 2003, petering out after 2007 as the university it was hosted in ejected the foreign organism from its nest! Nevertheless in November 2006, 144 graduates met each other face-to-face for the first time after three years of online learning as a community. Substantial relationships had been established in a powerful online learning community through experienced facilitation and a purposeful, motivated membership.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. online community is often the only possibility for some learners;
  2. place – university is too far away;
  3. time – university teaching is often at the wrong time and synchronous;
  4. substantial and meaningful relationships can be formed with good facilitation and strong motivation.

About Richard Millwood:

Dr Richard Millwood is director of Core Education UK and a researcher in the School of Computer Science & Statistics, Trinity College Dublin. Current research interests include learning programming and computational thinking and in relation to this, he is currently engaged in the development of a community of practice for computer science teachers in Ireland and also creating workshops for families to develop creative use of computers together. He gained a BSc in Mathematics & Physics at King’s College London in 1976 and first became a secondary school teacher. From 1980 to 1990 he led the software development of educational simulations in the Computers in the Curriculum Project at Chelsea College London. He then worked with Professor Stephen Heppell to create Ultralab, the learning technology research centre at Anglia Polytechnic University, acting as head from 2005 to 2007. He researched innovation in online higher education in the Institute for Educational Cybernetics at the University of Bolton until 2013, gaining a PhD by Practice ‘The Design of Learner-centred, Technology-enhanced Education’. Until September 2017, he was Assistant Professor for four years directing the MSc in Technology & Learning and supervising six PhD students. He is now working for Eedi / Diagonostic Questions as Computing Lead.

Contacting Richard Millwood:

You can follow Richard on Twitter or send him an email

By Richard Millwood

The Ultraversity Project was developed at Ultralab at Anglia Ruskin University. Established in 1990 it conducted many globally- significant action research projects.

Foremost amongst these were the Notschool.net project which provided an online learning community for adolescents for whom school did not fit.

Another major project was Talking Heads, which connected the headteachers of the UK in an informal online learning community.

These projects informed the design and development of the Ultraversity project in 2003. Staff worked online from their homes around the UK. The team had worked closely together in this way for three years on previous projects.

There was a need for higher education for working people, who could not afford to be at university due to financial, family or access issues.

The aim was to create a BA qualification where the students’ driver was the desire to improve their ‘work’ context.

It was intended to enable students to do this whilst full time working and living life.

‘Work’ is defined broadly and includes voluntary and domestic activity. The activity needs to be capable of improvement and research.

Action research was the core discipline in this fully online course. The first time students met was at the graduation ceremony – 120 students did so in November 2006.

The students could not attend normal university because they needed to keep their job or care for family. For many, the Open University route would take too long and they were prepared to put in the spare time to study more rapidly.

Most students were from the school workforce, but a significant minority were in the health service and there were others from a broad range of contexts.

Cohorts were important in order to build communities where students are sharing the same challenges and able to support each other as they work to common timescales.

Left to their own devices, together with a commitment to improve the workplace, students researched the issues that were current and relevant.

The course combined several innovations to create an approach which focusses on the development of a graduate with confidence, sustainable learning skills & habits and competence to use technology independently.

The regionally distributed team who developed this model, maintained a successful online community of practice themselves as they grew in confidence and know-how to offer the degree, and this is one of many departures from typical university practice.

The outcome was a mature practitioner comfortable with innovation, contributing to knowledge in the workplace and beyond, confident to critcially question initiatives and initiate proposals.

Initially students identified where improvement can be made in their workplace. After checking what was known about the potential, they planned action, did it and reviewed, repeating several times.

The degree depended on online community to function – students helped each other and challenged each other as they learnt together. The strength of this community was hypothesised to achieve depth in learning

Students were quick to say how much they had been rewarded by the strong friendships which had developed online.

For assessment, students were encouraged to communicate often, in relatively small pieces, using a range of genre and media.
The key element was the ‘stitching’ of these pieces, reflecting on the learning journey.

Ultraversity developed a process curriculum, which does not define any detailed content, focussing instead on the disciplines of action enquiry, digital creativity and exhibition. These disciplines, when linked to the twin drivers of personal fulfilment and workplace improvement set up the learner for lifelong learning and the employer for considerable assurance of improvement.

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