October 28, 2021
E-learning: driving a more sustainable future
Evaluating the relative merits of distance learning versus on-campus provision has, to date, focused primarily on comparing learning outcomes, with most studies finding minimal differences and similar student satisfaction levels for both distance and face-to-face instruction models.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the conversation has moved on. Those factors previously regarded as among the lesser benefits of e-learning – accessibility, flexibility and lower levels of disease transmission, for example – have risen to greater prominence at the same time as the advantages of traditional university and college courses were, albeit temporarily, lost to a succession of crippling lockdowns.
Today, as Scotland prepares to host the critical COP26 summit, there’s another potentially game-changing tick in the virtual learning box: the contribution e-learning could make to achieving urgent environmental goals.
The scale of human impact on the planet’s ecosystems is well documented – a recent study shows that scientific consensus on human-caused contemporary climate change currently stands at more than 99 percent.
Adapting human activity to mitigate the changes we’re already experiencing will require an international response on a scale never before seen – a global shift that will forever transform the way we all think and learn and make decisions. Universities and colleges are perfectly placed to act not only as forums for furthering scientific discovery and debate but as exemplars of good practice.
It’s a challenge that’s being addressed in higher education institutions all over the world. Many campuses are already firmly committed to promoting sustainability through capital improvements, including the development of ‘greener’ buildings and the refocusing of campus operations to deliver sustainable benefits. Another, and arguably more impactful, long-term evolution is the provision of a broader selection of courses to remote learners via online instruction.
Enabling more students to experience high-quality, campus-equivalent university programmes isn’t just a smart commercial move. If implemented widely and effectively, it could create a ‘virtuous circle’, democratising access to some of the best educational institutions in the world, while encouraging the behavioural changes that would help tackle negative environmental consequences.
It’s more than pie-in-the-sky rhetoric. As part of an Open University sustainable teaching and learning project, researchers from the Digital Innovation Group found that deploying an online teaching model achieved carbon profiles that were almost 90 percent lower than face-to-face teaching.
The project explored the main sources of carbon impacts attributed to higher education teaching, including staff and student travel, the use of educational materials and IT equipment, energy consumption, and campus operations. It found that online learning lowered organisations’ environmental impact in three important areas:
Online learning offers students from every walk of life a flexible way of upskilling to the highest level. The ubiquity of smart devices and the rapid penetration of high-speed telecommunications networks around the world, are gradually lowering the barriers to education, providing emerging opportunities for more people.
Delivering the quality of education – at distance and at scale – capable of elevating human capital, is one of the most important ways we can begin to address increasingly globalised sustainability challenges. Digital transformation is key to opening access to higher education, but it can’t be achieved without disrupting traditional learning models.
Novel innovations will be needed to meet the challenges of online learning, specifically:
For online learning to offer a real alternative to a campus-based educational experience, universities must invest in redesigning courses, tailoring them to remote delivery – rather than attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole. E-learning programmes can’t afford to be a pale imitation of their campus counterparts. Indeed, this could be a historic opportunity for faculties to embed digital delivery into the teaching and learning process to benefit all students – not just those learning remotely.
That said, the drive to build e-platforms that enable universities to deliver outstanding learning experiences to remote students is creating new problems for higher education institutions that have traditionally focused on campus-based courses. Implementing e-learning technology, while transforming course content for digital learners carries considerable cost. Which is why more establishments are choosing to blend delivery mechanisms with experienced EdTech partners to marry optimum economic performance with logistic efficiencies.
While the pandemic-forced global shutdown of public spaces drove a rapid crisis-response migration to remote teaching, it also revealed the potential for online learning to play a more prominent role in sustainable education.
To be successful, though, teaching styles must evolve to match learning opportunities, tapping into increasingly interactive, creative and strategic ways to engage learners across multiple geographies. If we’ve learned one thing from Covid, it’s that we have to adapt to survive; as the pandemic has persisted, so online learning has gained a firmer foothold in the educational sector.
Demand is certainly growing. Market research specialist Research and Markets estimate that the global online education market will climb to USD 350 billion by 2025, due, in large part, to flexible learning technologies.
The United States leads the charge, with over six million learners enrolled in online learning and distance learning programmes but other countries are quickly catching up. Interestingly, a rise in the number of UK universities offering online courses has led to a significant increase in international students – especially from the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa – choosing to study remotely at a UK university.
Universities now face an opportunity embedded in a challenge. Recruiting higher numbers of remote students will allow them to create a potentially profitable income stream while balancing their broader sustainability goals. But they must master the technological challenge if they are to meet the aspirations of a demanding and disparate student body. As issues of global sustainability reach crisis point, and heads of state gather in Glasgow for the latest round of climate negotiations, it’s a challenge that can’t be swerved.
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The future of work: how universities can prepare students for an uncertain future
More people than ever are going to university. In the UK, well over a third of all 18-year-olds (37.8 percent) enrolled on a full-time undergraduate course last year, according to UCAS. And, while some students are drawn to higher education to increase their academic knowledge and enjoy the university experience, most will also be looking to improve their employment and earning prospects. Government figures for 2020 show a graduate employment rate of 86.4 percent, with median graduate earnings standing at £35,000 (£9,500 more than their non-graduate counterparts).
Creating a rich social and cultural experience for online degree learners
Much of the discussion around the recent global shift from campus-based to remote-learning models has centred on the quality of online programmes of study – more particularly on how universities can effectively motivate, support, and assess individuals as part of a dispersed student population.
Breaking the bias: addressing the higher education gender pay gap
As participation continues to widen in the UK’s higher education sector with increasing numbers of applications from previously underrepresented sectors, many gender-based anomalies remain. For example, while women are much more likely to go to university than men (as well as to complete their studies and to achieve a good degree), figures show that women graduates cede their professional advantage in a matter of months.
EdTech: How technology is empowering universities to deliver high-quality online programmes
When universities were compelled to pivot from providing primarily campus-based programmes of study to delivering remote-first instruction, teachers and students alike found themselves navigating systems largely designed to deliver a facsimile of the traditional classroom experience, relayed via videoconferencing and other related connectivity tools.
Successful strategies for designing and delivering high-quality online learning
As demand grows for online learning options that are as comprehensive and effective as their campus-based counterparts, forward-thinking higher education organisations are exploring strategies that will help them deliver high-quality, full-featured programmes of study in remote, blended and hybrid formats.
The great unbundling: diminishing or democratising higher education?
Back in 2011, academic eyebrows were raised when news of a ‘no-frills’ higher-education path in an offshoot of Coventry University emerged, offering degree-level qualifications for around half the price of traditional universities. Students at the Coventry University College (CUC) were promised modular study routes in a variety of professional programmes, with part-time, full-time, and accelerated options, as well as the opportunity to pay in instalments.
Taking the lead: tackling the challenges of moving campus-based courses online
Events of the last two years have heralded unprecedented developments in the higher-education sector, forcing organisations to transition to remote learning at a highly accelerated pace.
Aiming high: 10 ways universities can optimise the student experience in 2022
As the Covid-19 pandemic enters its third year, the temporary disruptions that rocked higher-education provision in the early weeks of 2020 have since escalated into the existential challenges the sector is facing today.
University career services: A critical tool in a competitive climate
It’s a tricky time for graduates. As class-of-2021 graduates collide and compete with their 2020 peers, who lost out due to the pandemic-induced suspension of graduate programmes, fewer opportunities are being spread even more thinly across a bumper crop of applicants in super-competitive jobs market – with predictably diminishing returns.
How online learning can support a more inclusive approach to higher education
The challenges presented by the pandemic have prompted a sector-wide re-think of higher-education provision in a radically changed world. It’s also sparked fresh discussions on how universities and other institutions can use what they’ve learned over the past eighteen months to deliver more assertively on access and participation and to accelerate recovery.
Can online education help plug the global skills gap?
Employment rates have been hitting the headlines recently, as businesses everywhere struggle to recruit staff in a number of key areas.
What’s driving universities to go online?
The pandemic pushed distance learning into the mainstream as lockdown shuttered school and college campuses all over the world in spring 2020. Once the province of a relatively small cohort of specialist organisations, online study became the de-facto option for millions of students almost overnight.