Is Online Learning the Future of Further Education?

Leading universities will offer fully accredited undergraduate degrees online within the next five years, according to the founder of educational platform Coursera. Speaking at an educational conference in London, Professor Daphne Koller said the next stage for digital learning would be the introduction of online undergraduate courses with invigilated exams and full degrees.

Though some still consider technology to be a distraction to learning, many education experts understand that embracing the digital era can enrich the classroom environment. The focus on technology in further education specifically has intensified in the last few years. A 2014 Association of Colleges report highlighted how the integration of tech solutions in schools is inevitable.

This extends to primary education, where PBS LearningMedia found that 45 percent of US primary teachers use web-based educational tools to help reinforce and expand on content. However, some universities have not been so quick to embrace an online learning culture.

University Reluctance to Move Away from Personal Tuition

Online learning remains a niche concern for many universities. Prof Koller believes many institutions do not want to be seen as moving away from personal tuition. She claims concerns about impersonal online learning are often built on an unrealistic image of traditional campus-based teaching.

Stanford University in California is one of the few schools to fully embrace digital learning. The university has ploughed millions of dollars into “massive online open courses”, also known as moocs, which offer free courses to students around the world.

The mooc revolution began when Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun offered a free artificial intelligence course online as an experiment. 160,000 students from 190 countries had enrolled within the first couple of weeks. Thrun has since launched Udacity, an online platform which aims to “democratise education” by offering free courses in a range of subjects.

However, many commentators have claimed universities are opening the floodgates to something that could upend the traditional higher education system. If students can learn from the comfort of the own home for effectively nothing, why would they pay the necessary fees to enroll on an on-campus degree?

Professor Martin Bean, President of RMIT University, described the rise of moocs as the “Napster moment for higher education“. In its heyday, Napster, which allowed fans to share music for free online, turned the music industry business model on its head.

Online Degrees Not Viewed as Favorably

Educational platforms like Udacity have become popular with students who want to improve their qualifications but have little time or money for campus-based study. An annual report into online education found that one in four US students take at least one course online – a total of 5.8 million students.

Nonetheless, a Public Agenda survey found that employers prefer applicants with traditional degrees from average universities over those with an online degree from a top university. Despite recognising the niche for online education, 42% of employers surveyed believe students learn less in online-only degrees, while 39% believe online-only degrees are easier to pass.

However, perceptions of online-only degrees are beginning to shift. Big name corporations have endorsed online programmes, helping to shake off some of the stigma they have in the marketplace. For instance, Starbucks covers four years of tuition reimbursement for workers to earn an online undergraduate degree from Arizona State University, while McDonald’s has expanded its college tuition assistance program to eligible workers in all of its US stores.

Online degree opportunities are set to expand

There are signs that a complete transition to online-based learning could be on the horizon. In the UK, online university platform Futurelearn have teamed up with the University of Leeds to offer moocs which, for the first time, will count as credits towards an undergraduate degree.

In the US, more online learning networks are emerging to challenge Coursera and Udacity. EdX is set to launch a project with the Arizona State University where online course units will count towards a full degree. If a student passes eight online courses, costing around $200 each, credits earned will be the equivalent of a first year at university.

The past four years has seen a rapid rise in students interested in studying online, according to Prof Koller. However, there has been a much slower reaction from universities in offering fully fledged online courses. The big shakeup to the further education system will come if leading, campus-based universities begin to challenge online learning networks by offering their own degrees online – something they’ll inevitably have to do if demand continues to increase.

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Written by:
Simon Davies is a London based freelance writer with an interest in startup culture, issues and solutions.
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