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Mark Austin

oxford Brookes University

Senior lecturer

Read more from Mark Austin

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Virtual learning environments: bridging industry and academia


Academic institutions are using virtual learning environments to provide highly innovative courses aimed directly at the needs of industry.

Traditionally there have been two approaches to staff development. The first is through bespoke in-house training schemes often tailored to job specific requirements. The second is to outsource training to established providers such as colleges and universities. 

Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. In-house training, whilst more targeted towards job specific skill requirements, is often limited in scope and can be expensive to set up. Contrastingly, courses offered by colleges and universities, whilst providing expert tuition are somewhat tarred by industry’s criticisms that they are often too academic and discipline orientated.

The idea that there is a gap between what industry needs and what academia offers is misplaced. Over recent years there has been a rapid evolution in courses on offer from further and higher education.

"There is a new technology emerging in the education sector that challenges the thought that sending employees to university can result in an albeit temporary reduction in productivity."

Vocational qualifications are offered in a range of industry sectors. They are delivered in the actual workplace or in a workplace setting. National occupational standards define the knowledge, understanding and competence required to perform a particular job related role. These standards are created by industry sector bodies and organisations, such as sector skills councils, in order to ensure that the qualifications are relevant to their related sector.

Diplomas, which were designed with input from employers, were launched in 2008. They are available in different industry sectors and are delivered by schools and colleges. A minimum of ten days’ work experience is required for this qualification. The teaching teams within these institutions continue liaising with businesses and professional bodies during the delivery of the course to retain high standards. As a result, courses remain relevant to and up-to-date with the industry.

Even at graduate level, many universities run practical alternatives to traditional full-time degrees, ranging from foundation degrees to part-time routes in professionally-accredited, undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. The better ones are developed in consultation with the industry to make sure that the graduates have the knowledge and transferable skills businesses require.

New technology at the heart of innovation

Businesses need to train their staff, if they are to remain competitive, especially where those staff are dealing with technology and innovation. The thought of losing key staff, even to a part-time course can have prohibitive cost implications to employers. 

However, there is a new technology emerging in the education sector that challenges the thought that sending employees to university can result in an albeit temporary reduction in productivity. 

The development of the virtual learning environment (VLE) is changing the way traditional classes are taught and institutions are now using this technology to provide highly innovative courses aimed directly at the needs of industry.

One example is the MSc in Project Management in the Built Environment (MSc PMBE) offered by Oxford Brookes University. This course is specifically designed to meet the growing need for project managers with the skills that the construction industry demands. Established in 2007, the key factor in the development of the course was close consultation with industry on how the use of the VLE should be used to deliver quality distance learning.

A practical and flexible approach

The MSc PMBE is delivered as both a one year full time and a two year part time distance learning course. Businesses considering the course, are attracted to mechanisms which bring together distance learning, facilitated through the VLE and face-to-face intensive study periods, either on campus or on field-trips abroad.

The VLE enables students to access their course materials anywhere in the world at any time. This eliminates the need to attend sessions on campus on the same day of every week of the academic year - a non-starter for many employers and employees.

Although isolation and the resultant disengagement are the main problems associated with this type of delivery, they can easily be overcome by incorporating two to three intensive study periods each academic year when students and teaching teams indulge in face-to-face interaction.

In this way the part-time students get to be part of a learning community whilst the full-time students get a first hand insight to the construction industry. As one student puts it: "The benefits to studying online are that studying can take place in our own time, rather than being structured into set lecture hours. We have the benefit of knowing when the module leaders are available if we need assistance. Once I was used to using the VLE message boards to communicate with other course members and lecturers, the system worked really well."

Universities including Oxford Brookes have made strategic decisions to focus on the development and delivery of these courses specifically to work more closely with industry. These learning approaches are novel to most universities, where the usual mode of learning is lecture and exam-based.

By requiring the students to make sense of real-life situations through applying theory to practice, problem-based learning also has the potential to bring industry and academia closer together.

Learning takes place through groups of students puzzling through problems, often adapted from real situations. With much of the complexity and context intact, students use published resources, or consult experts who are available to offer advice. The part-time students are encouraged to bring work situations into an academic environment, which helps them develop insight to critically appraise their practices and thus identify areas of improvement. They are then able to apply their learning to change or improve practices in their work places.

In summary, a problem-based learning approach to facilitate the students’ learning and a state-of-the-art virtual learning environment that supports all students, but particularly those who are studying at a distance, are two building blocks for providing flexible and industry relevant training.


Dr Mark Austin is senior lecturer in construction technology and program leader  on MSc Project Management in the Built Environment at Oxford Brookes University. Mark is a fellow of the higher education academy and his teaching interests include the science behind sustainable construction, construction materials and research methods. Mark is heavily involved in developing innovative methods of teaching using virtual teaching environments.


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Mark Austin

Senior lecturer

Read more from Mark Austin

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