What is the University of Us?

The University of Us is a new learning initiative starting in Lewes. The idea is to bring together groups of people to enjoy online and local learning in an informal setting, with the support and encouragement of a local tutor.

Why join Us•U?

If you have ever taken a MOOC (Massive, Open, Online Course) or other online course, you will know how difficult it is to stay motivated. In fact, on most MOOCs, the drop-out rate is incredibly high (statistics vary, but for many MOOCs, it’s between 85-95%), but not because of the content or even the learning format. For most people, learning is a social activity – being able to meet and discuss things with others consolidates learning and makes it more enjoyable. Us•U taps into the online learning available, but brings it alive through local events and regular, informal meetings. Another way of looking at Us•U is as a means of turning those one-off local events (literary festivals, talks, public meetings) and visits to local amenities (Brighton and Hove Museum and Art Gallery, The Sealife Centre, Charleston) into opportunities for better, social learning.

When will it start?

The University of Us will start in January. The first course will follow the FutureLearn course, ‘Start Writing Fiction’, and our first local meeting is on the 9th January! As interest is expressed, more courses will be added.

What’s the cost?

Cost is variable according to the duration of the course, whether specialist tutors or talks are part of the learning and whether, for instance, computer rooms need to be available. As a rule of thumb, however, 4-5 week courses that don’t need specialist facilities will cost around £50; 6-8 week courses requiring computer rooms will be around £100. While the MOOCs we use will be free, some people will want to pay for a certificate on completion (costs are variable). Tickets for local events or entry fees are also extra (but the expectation is these fees will be minimal).

What’s the commitment?

Each course will begin with an introductory meeting, in a local pub or rented venue; and once the online course begins, weekly face to face meetings will take place. Each group will have an online forum – separate from the MOOC forum – especially for your study group. The expectation is that your tutor and fellow students will use this as an informal space to ask questions, post interesting links, and support each other’s progress. In addition, you will need to consider the time involved in following the online course (which may be as little as two, or as much as six or more hours per week), plus the time involved in visits or attending events.


If you haven’t already provided your contact details, please fill in a contact form. We will keep you posted as new courses are organised.

General information about fees

University of Us course fees are variable and depend on the length of the course, whether specialist tutors are required and whether rooms or specialist equipment need to be hired. Broadly speaking, shorter courses of 4-6 weeks’ duration with no special requirements will cost around £50; longer courses of 8-10 weeks, or those with special venue or materials requirements will cost around £100.

Additional costs

In addition to the course fees, most courses will include one or two outings to a local event; such events will usually cost between £5-10. Where the cost is higher, students will be notified in advance. Students will also need to pay for their own transport if transport is required.

Where regular meetings are held at a pub for instance, students should bring enough money for a drink or, should they wish, a snack.


PayPal will soon be set up on the site. For the time being, however, students should pay by cheque at their first meeting or by BACs, by arrangement.

*Start Writing Fiction* – starting 09 January!

As this is Us•U’s inaugural course and we are still going through some teething troubles, I am pleased to offer the course for free to the first students. An 8-week course, with 9 meetings, SWF would normally cost £80. If you are interested in the course, please contact Wendy directly at info@universityofus.co.uk.

Cost of MOOCs/online courses

All of the online courses we will use will be free to study. Some MOOC providers offer certificates of completion or badges for which payment is required.

The Theory Behind the University of Us

Staying the Course

It is well-known that massive, open, online courses (MOOCs) have very high drop out rates: 93.2% on average is a recently published figure (Havergal, C., 2016, p.42). It is also well-known that the best way to ensure students stay with a course is for them to work together, in groups – ideally in ‘communities of practice’ – where there is a shared interest and commitment to the subject (for interesting discussions on this see e.g., Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger, John Seely Brown). It is, as Jon Dron and Terry Anderson remind us, hard to overstate ‘[t]he value of learning with others, from others, through others, and supporting others in their learning’ (2014, p. 3).

Jean Lave
Etienne Wenger
John Seely Brown
Jon Dron
Terry Anderson

The difficulty of creating successful learning groups online

But it is difficult to forge a group, let alone a community of practice, online, at a distance from others. The ‘solution’ for many online courses has been to implement some social aspects to the course, such as online asynchronous forums or occasional webinars. Sometimes these are brilliant and engage students at just the right level. More often than not, however, students find that their own voice gets lost amongst hundreds, or even thousands, of others and that making a social learning connection is impossible.

‘Digital natives’: but not necessarily ‘Digital learners’

While the digital revolution continues unabated in terms of technological change, and while increasingly people are using social media to engage with their friends and family, there is a manifest gap between digital social practice and digital learning literacies. Recent research by academics like Helen Beetham, Rhona Sharpe and others working at institutions such as Jisc indicates the range of digital literacies students need to develop to be successful in their academic careers. For informal learners (those studying outside of formal university structures), the challenges are often greater, as the support offered in a university setting is not readily available

Helen Beetham
Rhona Sharpe
Jisc (2015) 'Digital literacies'
Jisc (2015) 'Digital literacies'

Learning online can be challenging – but it doesn’t need to be.

The University of Us – theory meets practice

  • Meeting regularly with other students and a local tutor-facilitator encourages students to stick with the course and keep up with the online materials and activities.
  • Linking online learning with local experiences, such as a visit to a local art gallery, or going to a public meeting, creates a kind of experiential learning – linking learning to (local) life – which, if only for the short period of the course, is similar to a ‘community of practice’.
  • Learning becomes a social activity – which evidence shows is a more productive way to learn.
  • Students will have support in making the most of their online learning with common digital literacy difficulties addressed at the start of the course.
  • Where additional support is needed, more often than not, other students are able to help, but further guidance on developing digital learning can also be arranged.
Wendy Maples


Beetham, H. and Sharpe, R., eds. (2013) Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age, 2nd Edn. London, Routledge.

Beetham, H. (2012) ‘Strange Encounters: academic and digital know-how’,

Keynnote speech, Association for Learning Development in Higher Education Conference.

Craig, T. (2016) ‘World Insight: designing experiential learning’, Times Higher Education. 04 August, p. 33.

Dron, J. & Anderson, T., (2014). ‘Agoraphobia and the modern learner’, Journal of Interactive Media in Education. 2014(1), Part. 3. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/2014-03. Available at http://jime.open.ac.uk/articles/10.5334/2014-03/ (Accessed 27 February, 2016).

Havergal, C. (2016) ‘Slow Burn: MOOCs can transform education – but not yet’, Times Higher Education. 21 July, pp. 42-43.

Jisc (2015) ‘Digital Capabilities: the 6 elements defined’ [Online Report]. Available at ‪https://digitalcapability.jiscinvolve.org/wp/files/2015/06/1.-Digital-capabilities-6-elements.pdf‪ (accessed 07 December 2016).

Knight, S. and Price, H. (2016) ‘Understanding the who, what and how of online learning’ [Blogpost] Jisc Blog, 14 September, 2016. Available at https://www.jisc.ac.uk/blog/understanding-the-who-what-and-how-of-online-learning-14-sep-2016 (accessed 07 December 2016).

Lave, J. and Wenger, E., 1991. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Thomas, D. and Seely Brown, J. (2011) A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.

Wenger, E. (2009) ‘A social theory of learning’, in Illeris, K. (ed.) Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists…in their own words. London, Routledge.