Online short courses: moving weekly classes into the future

In the late 19th Century, the University of Oxford was one of the first HE institutions to promote adult learning and extend its educational offerings to the general public across the UK, though the Department for Continuing Education (OUDCE).  One of the main pillars of this provision has long been the weekly classes programme that offers courses over ten weeks to students who can come to a class once a week in Oxford.

The early 21st century saw this programme extended through the establishment of online short courses, aimed at widening access to high-quality adult education to students who would otherwise be unable to access the scholarship and teaching of Oxford.  In January 2004, the Department launched its first ten-week online short course for 21 students, and in the following 11 years the programme has grown from a single philosophy course to almost 100 courses in 15 subject disciplines ranging from art history to astrophysics.

The online short courses are developed collaboratively by Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning (TALL), the Department’s in-house team of online learning professionals, and the Department’s academic staff (who are specialists both in their subject discipline and in the teaching of adult learners), and are tutored by subject experts who have undertaken training in how to teach effectively online.  Based on the Oxford tutorial model, the courses situate the student in an interactive virtual community creating a rich learning experience.  Bringing together students from all over the world with their Oxford tutors, the courses guide students through activities and learning materials enabling them to develop their understanding through a mix of flexible individual study and collaborative work.

A decade of development has seen a move from primarily text-based courses to ones incorporating audio, video and other interactive content.  The online experience has much consonance with a traditional classroom.  Student numbers per course are capped at between 20 and 32 (depending on the discipline).  This small community approach enhances the learning experience.  Students are able to take part in in-depth discussion; and receive personalised tutor guidance, feedback and support.  The international diversity of students also allows them to discuss and explore topics in ways rarely possible in face-to-face classrooms.

The programme has provided the opportunity for thousands of students across the globe to access the University’s teaching and learning in an environmentally sustainable manner.  More prosaically, the financial model for the courses is sustainable.  TALL has designed and refined a flexible production model that enables the creation of effective learning experiences on realistic budgets while maintaining a consistent quality, and adhering to the same academic QA processes as the Department’s face-to-face provision.  This model has been informed by significant and regular feedback from students, research undertaken by TALL, and by constant collaboration with academic staff.

The programme has had over 30,000 enrolments and has attracted a diverse range of participants, with students aged from 18 to 80+ years of age, from 126 different countries, with over 170 occupations.  Many of the programme’s students are non-native English speakers, some have access requirements (physical and/or educational) and a significant number of them take their online courses from resource-limited settings or are only able to study due to the flexibility the online delivery format provides.

Further information

Explore the online courses offered by OUDCE at

Find out about the development team in TALL at

Director of TALL, Sean Faughnan:

For course design enquiries, contact Marion Manton:

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