UDOL – Building market share, globally

University of Derby Online Learning (UDOL) is a leader in developing online degree courses and supporting online learners. Formed in 2011 as the distance learning division of the University of Derby, in 2015 UDOL had  approximately 3,500 learners enrolled from over 100 countries.

Ambitious for further growth, including recruitment at a global scale, UDOL was putting in place new plans and processes, strengthening the organisation and refreshing its brand. To underpin those changes, UDOL approached Marketwise Strategies for research to assess its competitive environment and inform future market positioning. Of particular interest were other UK providers of online learning – both universities and ‘alternative providers’ of higher education.

using ipad cafe 4Since the marketplace was developing rapidly, with UK universities increasingly building online or blended learning programmes into their portfolios, it was important to combine in-depth assessment of individual competitors with a much broader analysis of trends in the types of programmes offered and the pedagogies in place.


Key requirements were to:

  • Clarify competitors’ strategies and identify opportunities for differentiation
  • Develop a comprehensive understanding of the competitor landscape (UK-based providers of online degrees), including competitors’ brands, market position, proposition and strategies.

Specific research objectives involved understanding:

  • UK online learning – the main providers, their programmes; the strategies being adopted; the gaps in provision; and opportunities
  • Competitors – their ‘offers’; delivery and operations; marketing; student body; student satisfaction and retention; growth strategies and innovation; and wider audiences and activities.

How we helped

Marketwise Strategies worked with UDOL to design a wide-ranging, multi-mode study comprising:

Phase One – online learning landscape and competitors

  • A literature review – drawing upon sources such as UKCISA, HEFCE, Universities UK, HESA and QAA, to identifty significant trends, outline the key audiences and detail emerging forms of provision
  • A competitor analysis that:
    • Identified UK online degree providers in relevant subject areas aligned to UDOL’s current course provision
    • Analysed, in detail, a number of competing institutions and their offers – exploring, for example their current and forthcoming online learning courses, marketing messages and channels and composition of the student body.

Phase Two – primary research among online learners

  • Online survey
    • Among current UK and international students of – and recent graduates from – wholly online degree programmes, who had studied/were studying with UK-based providers.
    • Assessing the most important factors in their choice of course and provider, perceptions of their provider’s approach and aspects of pedagogy.

Kedleston Road campus shot on a summers day.UK respondents were drawn from a major panel and international students from an overseas panel that could provide some of the countries of interest. International recruitment was supplemented by a small number of additional respondents obtained via social media, for countries where access via panels was not possible. These approaches reflected our past experience in recruiting students, applicants and graduates to international higher education research, targeting specific countries and subject disciplines.


We developed a comprehensive report that assessed: the development and role of online learning in the UK HE sector; the drivers for this; and the ways in which universities and others were building ‘online’ into their portfolios – including the subject areas offered and market positioning adopted.

iPad with UDOL learning content

We also profiled a series of the most relevant competitors, using findings from desk and primary research.

Research findings were also presented and the strategic implications explored, at a meeting with UDOL’s Director, marketing team and other key, internal stakeholders.


The research has helped UDOL to understand their current position within the UK online learning marketplace and has been a key component in developing UDOL’s brand strategy.

Following a tendering process I was pleased to award the market research project to Marketwise Strategies. Their thorough proposal promised the best value for money from the various proposals submitted to us.

Paul Koshy was my regular contact and he was excellent in keeping me informed with the progress being made during the project. The project was delivered on time.
The final report that we received was very detailed and it was clear that a lot of hard work had been completed in putting it together. The insight provided within the report supported us in the development of our long term strategies to further expand the business.

— Ian Marsden, Market Insight Officer, UDOL