Where will online education be in five years?

Online learning design is now a refined art, says Geoff Webster, and universities must show they can produce high-quality courses at a reasonable cost

October 19, 2017
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Having been through the hype-cycle a number of times, from the ill-fated UK eUniversity project of the early 2000s to the “disruptive” impact of Moocs (massive open online courses), a degree of caution around online learning is perhaps warranted. 

However, at least 30 UK universities are now strategically engaging with online learning to target the global market. They offer a wide range of programmes, predominantly taught master’s, and are investing in recruitment as well as production and delivery. There are now more than 1,400 online master’s-level courses in the UK, ranging from professional training to full degrees. 

Given the uncertainties around Brexit, and idiosyncratic US leadership, it is brave to envisage what the sector will look like in five years’ time. However, of the 120 mainstream universities in the UK, we expect more than half to have committed strategically to online learning. 

Institutions will deliver a wide range of purely online and blended degrees, short courses, and other accredited activities to a broad range of domestic and global students. Some will be expansive, offering the broadest range of subjects and competing in multiple markets; others will seek to differentiate by specialising in their traditional niches. Online pedagogy and technology will, in turn, improve the on-campus experience of traditional students. 

The complexities associated with large-scale online learning – not least development and delivery – means that some institutions will fail, especially those who lack requisite expertise or strategic vision. A major risk factor will be recruitment; for home students competition will be fierce, while those university brands with strong resonance in key global markets may be able to carve out relatively safe spaces. 

The largest are, in theory at least, well placed to manage this transition in-house, but most will look to partner in a myriad of ways to mitigate financial and reputational risk, and to deliver their ambitions – especially those whose focus is as much global as domestic. 

A university seeking to engage, and engage quickly, faces a number of options. It can go it alone, partner on a limited basis for key competencies, or enter a broader partnership covering all aspects of online learning. 

The key strategic questions are: how quickly can an institution get to market, can it produce and deliver programmes of the right quality and with the right cost base, and are these investments sustainable in the long term? Student expectations, learning design, delivery modes, technology choices and recruitment should be top of mind for vice-chancellors. 

A fundamental point to keep in mind is that online learning is not merely a version of in-person traditional learning put through a computer. It has an entirely new set of requirements that require a radical change in the way that universities operate. 

For online learning specifically, students who have grown up with the web are used to a high level of polish and low levels of friction in their customer experiences, and translate these requirements to their online learning experiences. This impacts the admissions, student support and ancillary services, and all the information systems that underpin the relationship between student and university. Universities are not always rapid in their adoption of new technologies and processes, but foregoing this investment negatively impacts on the individual student and the reputation of the university. 

From a pedagogical perspective, online learning design is now a refined art. To deliver the level of quality that both students and academics expect, and is provided by leading online programmes today, universities must be willing to invest substantial resources in development. This requires active engagement from their leading academics, departments and schools; the provision of professional learning designers to create the structures appropriate to each programme; and developers to build high-quality interactive content. 

Universities wishing to engage in online learning also face a choice around mode of delivery. In the US, purely online delivery is the norm, and high student-tutor ratios are common. In the UK our traditions of personal, tutorial-based pedagogy put the onus on a higher level of academic staff engagement, the provision of sufficient (and sufficiently qualified) teaching staff, and for many the use of blended learning. 

Blended learning has a higher rate of student satisfaction, outcomes and retention, but requires institutional capability and flexibility to deliver a high-quality face-to-face experience within the context of an online learning programme. 

Further issues may arise around the nature of delivery – does it replicate the “normal” structures of the institution, or leverage teaching-focused associates and tutors to provide a more intensively-supported learning experience at scale? 

Technology platforms are now sufficiently mature to provide, at a minimum, the reliability and features required to deliver a good user experience. But they are not hands-free quite yet, and their selection and management require a lot of work behind the scenes to enable this high level of user experience for students and academics. 

Coming technological advances, such as adaptive content provision and virtual and augmented experiences will have their place in certain subject areas, but will add their own development and delivery overheads. As an institution invests in online, focusing in-house IT departments on what may start out as a small number of students can be a real challenge. 

The combination of skills and the investment needed to deliver a high-quality, academically rigorous experience prevent cottage industry scale courses from having a transformative impact on either students or the university. Moving to recruitment at scale and reaching volumes sufficient to provide a return on investment is the only sustainable way to grow. We are not talking about Moocs or even US levels of scale, where some programmes can have tens of thousands of participants. But it will necessitate investment in sales and marketing resources and expertise. 

For many universities this will come naturally. For others, more used to refusing entrance than seeking students, it will be a challenge. For all, their ability to tap into local expertise, knowledge of individual markets and understanding of online recruitment patterns will determine their success. 

Fortunately the twin engines of growth – domestic and international demand – should provide a sufficient body of students, with a breadth of subjects, levels and entry requirements. 

Geoff Webster is Managing Director at CEG Digital, the blended learning division of Cambridge Education Group.

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