Academic fears about online learning – and how to allay them

Technology-enhanced learning must have quality and a sound business model at its core, says Rajay Naik

February 14, 2016
Student using a laptop computer

Technology has transformed the way we communicate and how we buy and sell just about everything.

Entertainment, publishing and retail have evolved to give us greater efficiency, convenience and on-demand service. These sectors have arguably adapted more than higher education. However, over the coming months, the innovation in online higher education will be significant but strategic.

Significant because the pace of change is profound; strategic because we are dealing with the precious gift of education and quality is something that the UK is renowned for – something that must never be abandoned in the pursuit of change.

The argument for the use of technology in learning has never been an affront to convention. It was, and remains, an effort to unleash the academic, empower the student, enhance the learner journey and extend access to those who would previously be denied.

Naturally, while embracing technology, universities must therefore be cautious to address common concerns.

Online learning isolates students

A common criticism of technology-enhanced learning is that it restricts personal interaction.

While it would be foolish to say that the alliances built in an Oxbridge college or the life skills acquired on campus can be replicated online, we should open our eyes to what can and has been achieved via technology.

Today’s campus lectures are enhanced via interactives and videos; virtual learning environments such as Blackboard, Moodle and Canvas allow students to engage with their professor and fellow students outside the lecture theatre.

Increasingly, online degrees are supplemented by summer schools. A plurality of supply is now beginning to emerge and should be pursued as part of a concerted effort to deliver greater choice for students.

Online learning allows today’s research to feed directly into tomorrow’s lecture without needing to wait for the publication of next year’s textbook.

Imagine exams that are marked in minutes and can be strictly verified according to your unique keystrokes or iris. Imagine having your curriculum and student support personally adapting in real time based on detailed analytics of your learning to date.

We no longer have to imagine. All of this, and much more, is commonplace in online higher education today.

The quality of online learning is not on par with on-ground

As we embark on this shift in pedagogy, we must remember that in the same way that there is poor face-to-face teaching and poor online teaching, there is great face-to-face teaching and great online teaching.

Our goal should simply be great teaching. Technology can facilitate this.

Many online courses demand a similar or the same fee level as is paid by on-the-ground students. Granted, they benefit from the lack of accommodation costs and are able to continue with their careers while studying. Nonetheless, we must ensure that they receive excellent value for their investment and are treated on a par with campus-based students.

For instance, students on courses enabled by the company that I run, Keypath, say that they value the personal relationship they build with their dedicated student support advisor, who assists them throughout their studies. Furthermore, these students should also be able to access the student union, alumni community and personalised careers advice.

Online learning should be flexible, but this should not be mistaken for remote, distant or inferior.

Online learning places undue pressure on academics

Our academics are vital and should never be an afterthought. They are already under immense pressure to deliver more in an environment in which higher fees mean higher expectations, and public investment and research budgets are squeezed.

Many will be concerned that online learning is simply another burden, a task to be completed.

Instead, we must train, guide and support them through this change, consistently demonstrating how innovation can strengthen one of their primary passions: personal, meaningful relationships with students that enrich learning and unleash minds.

It isn’t a viable business model

While I was a director at the Open University, a small group of us developed the FutureLearn platform, which registered its 1 millionth learner in early 2015.

We witnessed first-hand the power of Moocs, but now many vice-chancellors are finding that while short, informal, free courses are beneficial, they need degree-level online courses, formal students and actual revenue on their balance sheets. The most progressive in higher education are quickly realising the importance of seizing the emerging market rather than adapting late and having to battle for a piece of the action.

Despite the benefits of online learning, universities need to be mindful about retaining control of their operations.

While organisations such as Keypath Education may bring the financial capital, technological savvy, marketing and recruitment prowess and student support expertise, it is the university that sets admissions requirements, enrols students, signs off on course design and grants the degree.

Universities are rightly cautious but this should not inhibit change, especially when this change results in flexibility and accessibility for a greater number of prospective learners.

The potential for online higher education

The international market is key to the online learning business model. In light of the complications and cost that studying abroad can incur for a student, it’s easy to see why the online option is such a draw for international applicants.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency reported more than 578,000 students studying for a UK award in 2013-14 across the world, either online or across partner institutions in various countries. That’s a lot of global demand for UK courses, which will continue to grow year on year.

Students in Singapore, Shanghai and Sao Paulo can now earn degrees with our world-leading universities without needing to leave their careers and families or having to overcome the UKBA’s restrictive processes.

As cultural and regulatory concerns regarding online learning are confounded in the East and the supply of high-quality higher education increases in the West, we will witness a watershed in global access to education.

Perhaps most importantly, this shift could enable a democratisation of access as cost and geography  become  less of a barrier to the world’s poorest engaging with the world’s brightest minds.

This is not only an inspiring prospect, it is also a market imperative. Demand for higher education cannot be met by conventional supply alone. We cannot build enough bricks-and-mortar universities on this planet to meet demand so we must look to alternative models, too.

If we get this right, the consequences will not only benefit learners who seek more flexibility, but also our economy, which relies greatly on international students in particular.

Between 2011 and 2013, Britain’s share of international students declined from 37 per cent to 31 per cent; the first time it has fallen in more than 30 years. These individuals represent not only a loss in revenue but also the erosion of our soft power, given the goodwill that these individuals tend to retain for the UK after they go on to enjoy fulfilling careers.

Online higher education will never replace the campus, but it can enrich the experience and create greater plurality of supply.

There has never been a binary choice between online or face­-to-face education. As with so many changes to our society and economy over the past two decades, the imperative is to create more choice and increase flexibility.

As we do, we will strengthen our economy, boost productivity and ensure that our world-leading higher education continues to fuel minds and transform lives around the world for years to come.

Rajay Naik is chief executive officer, Europe of Keypath Education.

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