Impact of online education expansion ‘muted’

Hyped technology has delivered mixed access benefits, minor cost reduction and poor quality, conference hears

November 29, 2018
Pile of old computers
Source: Getty

The expansion of online higher education has benefited only a subset of students around the world, who have been condemned to substandard outcomes, a conference has heard.

Richard Garrett, director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, told a Melbourne forum that, despite decades of “hype”, online learning has exerted relatively minor influence on global higher education patterns.

“Online is hardly new any more,” Mr Garrett told the conference organised by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, Australia’s regulator. “We’re finally at a point where we can marshal some evidence about the true impact of online on the big issues that higher education faces.”

Mr Garrett said that online advocates routinely made “big claims” about its transformative potential. “Has it improved access, and for whom? Has it reduced costs, for the consumer or the institution? Has it improved outcomes?” he asked.

“We need to ask these tough questions of online because it is getting ever more large and mainstream.”

Mr Garrett said that online education has certainly had an impact in volume terms, with an estimated 4 million Americans – including around 15 per cent of undergraduates and 30 per cent of postgraduates – studying fully online. Other countries like Australia are exhibiting the “same momentum”, he said.

US data have suggested that institutions with significant online provision tend to attract high representation from some groups, including women, black Americans and people aged over 24. But online intensity has appeared to deter Asian-Americans, Hispanics, whites and men.

“Females are already over-represented in higher education,” Mr Garrett told the conference. “Online is exaggerating that over-representation and doesn’t seem to be doing anything about male under-representation.”

He said that the disparity is most evident among undergraduates with disabilities. At institutions with little online provision, they enrol at almost the same rate as able-bodied students, but at mostly online institutions they are under-represented by more than 25 per cent.

This contradicts assumptions that online education is more accessible for people with disabilities. “If it’s organised in a certain way, it can be. But people with a disability are much more likely to go to a traditional school with perhaps a wider array of facilities and support services,” Mr Garrett said.

US, UK and Australian data have also shown that internationally mobile students overwhelmingly prefer attending overseas universities or their branch campuses to taking their online courses. “Back in the late 1990s and through the Mooc boom, people kept saying online is going to break down geographical barriers,” Mr Garrett said.

“But it just doesn’t match the real and perceived immersion, networking, migration and employment opportunities that in-country and to some extent transnational education embodies.”

US data also provide scant evidence that online education reduces costs. Undergraduates in mainly online institutions have seen a slight reduction in tuition fees over the past seven years, but this has been insufficient to prevent a steeper rise in average fees across the board.

Meanwhile, intensely online institutions consistently achieved significantly lower completion rates than mainly face-to-face colleges.

Mr Garrett said that many academics maintain that “good” online teaching is more expensive than traditional delivery. “That may be true, but there is counter evidence that through careful redesign of teaching and learning, you can have the magical combination of higher quality and lower cost.

“If online can’t produce lower underlying cost and hold quality constant, what can?”

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