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Key aspects relevant to Metropolitan Universities

It is somewhat difficult to establish with fixed clarity what is meant by ‘metropolitan university’ in the context of UK higher education. The term itself is more often used in the USA, where 46% of universities are located in ‘metropolitan’ areas (Goddard & Vallance, 2011). ‘Publicly funded’ universities might be another way of looking at this type of higher education, or one might look at a widely used source of where one might find a definition: the Wikipedia entry for ‘Urban university’ states: P.E. Mulhollan […] defined a metropolitan university, in its simplest terms, “[as] an institution that accepts all of higher education’s traditional values in teaching, research, and professional service, but takes upon itself the additional responsibility of providing leadership to its metropolitan region by using its human and financial resources to improve the region’s quality of life”. 

For the purposes of this research, then, a metropolitan university was considered to be an institution located in a large urban area, with a remit to educate its local population, as well as those from farther afield. While striving for research excellence, it would likely also have strong business and knowledge partnerships with the local economy and work force, preparing students for employment and social contribution, most especially in its local area. Goddard & Vallance make several interesting connections about the importance of the renewed purposes of the ‘civic’ university, which may be a more appropriate term in the UK.

Relevance to metropolitan universities is significant in a number of themes present in the literature, (especially in the top six themes analysed). A variety of aspects all of core importance to the existence and purpose of metropolitan universities are present, including factors listed below:

  • Inclusivity
  • Diversity
  • Accessibility
  • Learner Differences
  • Equivalency
  • Flexibility
  • Student centered learning
  • Student developed learning
  • Personalised learning
  • Work based learning

These terms were used to either define themes themselves or as indicators for contextual category presence (which were then allocated to themes) when interpreting data, and are therefore listed here as general factors most relevant when considering urban or community universities and colleges.

Diversity and inclusivity might be said to be at the core of metropolitan university life and purpose. For example, several of the texts refer to colleges with a remit of widening participation, or fulfilling the requirement of much wider access to higher education (not quite the same thing) and that technology is a very significant player in the achievement of those aims and purposes (Lynch 2008, Oblinger 2013, Tate & Klein Collins 2013, Altbach et al, 2009). But diverse student populations have a number of considerations and issues which tend to multiply the more diverse the student body is, and this makes for increased potential problems when using technology. The use of technology in learning and teaching throws up sometimes major new issues and problems which may not be present when technology is not used, principally those of accessibility.

Accessibility can involve complex considerations: digital efficacy, physical or other impairment access requirements, other learner differences, any required equivalency of provision and relevant intellectual property, data privacy and security legislation. These may often be of most significance to universities with very diverse student populations, which again involve a number of factors: of gender, age, work and family commitments, other differences such as language, culture or health and disability. In other words, ‘non-traditional learners‘. Full consideration of these issues in relation to uses of technology in learning and teaching would merit its own research project (or several), so in this more limited context it might be more suitable to acknowledge them and suggest other work of relevance in these areas that is known to this researcher, such as that by Taylor & Newton (2013) previously covered in the literature review, and sources listed below, which would form the basis of any follow up to this research, and have variously been referenced in this project or used as background advice.

  • Ali Tarhinia, Kate Honea, Xiaohui Liua, 2013, User Acceptance Towards Web-based Learning Systems: Investigating the role of Social, Organizational and Individual factors in European Higher Education, UK, Procedia Computer Science 17 (2013) 189 — 197 (for computer self efficacy, usability, flexibility)
  • Wattenberg, T, 2004, Beyond legal compliance: Communities of advocacy that support accessible online learning, Internet and Higher Education 7 (2004) 123—139 (accessibility online)
  • Kanwar, A and Uvalic-Trumbic, S (ed), 2011, A Basic Guide to Open Educational Resources (OER), UK, Commonwealth of Learning (for Open Education Resources organisational planning concerns, policy directives and advice, intellectual property issues)
  • Beetham, H & Sharpe, R (ed) 2007, Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age, Designing and delivering e-learning, UK, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group (for learner differences, design and pedagogy issues for equivalency and efficacy of access)
  • Sharpe, R, et al, 2009, Learners Experiences of Elearning Synthesis Report: Explaining Learner Differences, UK, JISC (in depth learner differences)
  • Dabbagh, N., & Kitsantas, A., 2011, Personal Learning Environments, social media, and self-regulated learning: A natural formula for connecting formal and informal learning, Internet and Higher Education (2011) (for personalised learning)

Issues surrounding equivalency, equity of access and legislation requirements also impact other themes noted from the literature such as cost and policy, both institutional as well as national and even international. These potentially have more impact on a metropolitan university, as they may have the widest remit to educate both local, and internationally diverse student populations, and yet have the least and perhaps most precarious funding. Metropolitan universities are often also at the brunt of national policy, being a reflection of changing ideologies as governments and national priorities change.

Student centred learning, including student developed, work based and personalised learning, may also be of greater significance to metropolitan universities, i.e. those that might be most concerned with professional skills degrees, which often benefit from such aspects of student centred learning. The metropolitan university is at the forefront of these approaches, and could perhaps increase learning quality (another top 6 theme) by the more effective use of those technologies suitable for such purposes (for example Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2011).

We see these (student centred) issues echoed across multiple themes found through the literature review and other data from this research, and it is difficult to single out any one theme above any other in this respect. However, noting that at least 4 of the top 6 themes analysed are directly relevant to this area is in itself demonstrative of the impact of technology in these pedagogical approaches. In contrast, data derived both from the literature review as well as data from RG2 and RG3 gave a worrying picture as to student input and engagement in the learning design process. For example, Brown (2011) reported that student influence was minimal in encouraging academics to utilise web 2.0 applications, and from RG2, only two comments were made about student input – one negative. RG3 were not especially enthusiastic about technology use in their learning either. Whether this is fully relevant to student centred learning as a pedagogy is questionable, however, it does show that on the ground, ‘the jury is still out’.



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