November 23, 2021

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.


After more than a year of uncertainty – with many governments repeatedly rescinding and reapplying regulations in response to fluctuating infection rates – there is light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, even as Covid-19 restrictions ease and students cautiously return to classrooms and lecture theatres everywhere, the investment into online provision by some of the top universities in the UK hasn’t slowed.


So, what is driving universities online?


The growing demand for flexible study routes


We know that the demand for higher education globally is rapidly rising – some studies predict demand for places to quadruple by 2040.


It’s hard to imagine that the overwhelming majority of projected growth will come from in-person courses, given that students in growth hot-spots like Africa face persistent barriers to higher education enrolment, including funding, quality of provision, and institutional capacity.


The demographic of those looking to enter higher education has also changed in recent years, with greater numbers of older and in-work applicants looking to access education on more flexible terms. Online programmes usually carry lower costs – not only offering significant savings on tuition fees but also on associated expenses like transport, accommodation, books, and childcare.


As most courses provide self-paced, modular, asynchronous study options, they can usually be made to fit around existing commitments – and across different time zones, providing higher-education pathways for those who wouldn’t otherwise experience them.


The increasing parity of online and traditional qualifications


One of the roadblocks to expanding virtual learning opportunities thus far has been the commonly held perception that online degrees are a poor relation of their full-time campus counterparts.


It’s a dated comparison that no longer bears close scrutiny. A 2016 Gallup study (Busteed & Rodkin), showed that postgraduate students who completed at least half of their coursework online were experiencing similar career outcomes to peers who took most of their courses in person. Comparable numbers were in full-time employment (79 percent versus 78 percent), had attained managerial positions (85 percent versus 88 percent) and believed their degree was ‘very important’ for promotional prospects (55 percent versus 48 percent).


As online learning becomes not only more legitimate but increasingly highly regarded, the reputational gap between traditional and virtual learning will be harder to distinguish. This shift will be further boosted by the consolidation of prestigious educational institutions within the online market: witness the 2019 rebranding of Harvard Business School’s virtual offering from ‘HBX’ to ‘Harvard Business School Online’, blurring the boundaries between in-person and online programmes.


The effect of digital disruption across the sector as a whole


Many believe that disruption in the woefully under-digitised higher education sector is long overdue.


To keep up with the pace of academic progress, upcoming generations will not only have to learn their subjects thoroughly but will also need to be prepared to enter a cycle of constant iteration, letting go of old orthodoxies and embracing new, so they can be part of a fresh wave of knowledge transformation.


Against this rapidly evolving backdrop, students, educators, and policy makers will need to weigh the benefits of learning via the traditional classroom versus optimal digital delivery. Early adopters will be rewarded and universities that are slow to act could find themselves on the back foot. Those institutions that have already invested heavily in creating purpose-built learning programmes may establish an unassailable lead over those firmly rooted in the analogue.


Indeed, pandemic-accelerated technological advancements have shown how online learning has the potential to become part of a much more responsive, student-centred experience.


Advances in EdTech


Education Technology (EdTech) is making waves; it has already been pivotal in helping institutions find new ways to connect and engage learners who’ve found themselves isolated from the usual support systems.


Sector growth is so strong that experts are predicting the global EdTech market will be returning revenues of USD 377.85 billion by 2028 – much of which is likely be focused on higher education’s intersection with the workforce, according to investment intelligence firm HolonIQ.


Colleges and universities are leveraging EdTech to further accelerate the digital transition: they’re tapping into the existing expertise by using Online Program Managers (OPMs), for instance, to handle student recruitment, enrolment, and retention services, as well as to help re-design courses around remote learning requirements.


The potential for blended learning opportunities


The dawn of a new digital age is also driving some universities to find fresh ways to teach subjects that haven’t always lent themselves to virtual instruction.


Before the pandemic, some forward-thinking UK universities were already offering programmes that included an element of blended learning: marrying online study modules with the requirement for additional in-person commitment. Many now plan to scale these opportunities up, partnering the advantages of virtual learning with on-campus residencies or work-based placements.


It’s an approach that unites the flexibility of remote study with the benefits of practical experience to great effect.


Online learning needs to be better by design


However, delivering a high-quality virtual experience isn’t about the simple ‘onlinification’ of existing materials.


What works for in-person education doesn’t always translate for online students; in fact, a radical reimagining of the curriculum is often required for online learning to become a learning pathway in its own right, as opposed to a short-term pandemic fix.


Repackaging standard course modules for remote learners that were originally designed for campus-based students is a sticking-plaster response that won’t deliver a quality experience for any stakeholders in the long term – something that has become apparent in recent months. Streaming lectures – either live or via catch up – for example, can magnify rather than mitigate the problems students face when trying to access the online equivalent of campus events.


The many technical challenges that arise from turning course materials into digital resources mean that everyone involved must commit extra hours to ensure students aren’t disadvantaged. It’s an area of concern for universities who need to keep students engaged to prevent excessive attrition.


As online learning picks up pace, it makes sense to draw insights from the successes and failures of lockdown teaching to design modules that augment the virtual learning experience, rather than attempt to provide a pale imitation of the campus experience.


Successful online programmes will:

  • Leverage universities’ expertise via high-quality, active-learning courses that reinforce its academic reputation
  • Combine the best of both online and in-person learning opportunities
  • Advance and promote the concept of a ‘lifelong learning’ agenda
  • Provide a fully resourced pathway that engages, nurtures, and supports students at every stage
  • Optimise course content for mobile devices to facilitate learning on the move
  • Offer access to top-level degree subjects that are in demand everywhere
  • Help universities to recruit and retain students from more diverse backgrounds and a wider geographical area


Delivering programmes with confidence


Of course, developing the tech capabilities needed to delivery successful virtual degrees – including the admin, recruitment and content management functions that underpin them – is expensive and resource intensive. Partnering with OPM specialists like Higher Ed Partners can enable universities to leap ahead with greater speed and agility, without the need to commit to radical structural changes.


As technology-driven opportunities grow, a more accessible and diverse collection of higher education pathways will tempt students and employers to re-examine their options for personal and professional advancement. New digital learning standards will doubtless emerge – as will the regulation and infrastructure needed to facilitate and encourage innovation.


This digital learning transformation will see habits and expectations dramatically shift and realign, moving online educational delivery from the periphery to the very core of higher-education strategy for colleges and universities everywhere.



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