The stature and reputation of e-learning providers has grown encouragingly over the past few years.
Online degrees accredited by respected institutions are on the rise, opening doors for students worldwide to earn comprehensive higher educations. There have still been many skeptics in the upper echelons of traditional academia, who see online learning as a disruptive and possibly detrimental force to education. However, maybe the tide is turning.
The progression of MOOCs over the past decade has given e-learning providers and edtech companies reason for hope. First introduced in 2006, the height of the MOOC frenzy is often traced to 2012, with the launch and rise of Khan Academy, and hundreds have since followed the model of providing short, and often free, courses online.
Udacity were another early adopter in the field. Founder Sebastian Thrun went as far to suggest that within 50 years the number of universities worldwide could have shrunk to just ten, replaced by online providers. Furthermore, some have pointed to the economic impact of this growth - one Harvard academic predicting that in fifteen years’ time half of all American universities will go bankrupt.
The problem many e-learning providers have faced in light of the development of education technology is credibility - students unsure about how well their online degree will be perceived by employers and, even more, which universities would be providing the academic material for their study.
MOOCs may be the key to bridging this gap, and their recent evolution has been an excellent example of how respected academic institutions and e-learning could be the perfect couple for the future of education, as top educational institutions begin to consider e-learning as a collaborative partner, rather than a competitor.
MOOCS IN THE MAINSTREAM
Some academic institutions, such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford in the US have embraced the possibilities MOOCS have to offer, compared to some of their more stubborn European counterparts. They have seen opportunity, rather than existential threat. Coursera and edX are two of the most prominent providers of MOOCs on the market, whose major contributors include Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. While the courses they create and provide through these platforms are not yet available as college credit, this is also changing for the more forward-thinking universities. A good example is MIT, where today over half the 4,500 students take a MOOC as part of their course.
Some have proposed how this collaboration could be taken even further. Anant Agarwal, who runs edX, proposed an alternative to the standard American four-year degree course. Students, he argued, could spend an introductory year learning via a MOOC. This could be followed by two years at university, and a final year starting work or gaining experience while studying alongside. Blended learning – a phrase proudly wielded by many e-learning providers – is something established universities should work more towards providing.
Agarwal also makes the strong argument that it could allow for more flexible programmes for studying more niche subjects. For example, a course on English Literature in the 19th century could be accompanied by another university’s MOOC on French literature of the same period.
In the UK, it seems that changes are also coming. Last year online learning platform FutureLearn announced that the Open University and the University of Leeds will allow students to study for part of a degree of MBA course online using their platform. Even the most conservative of English institutions, Oxford, announced in November last year that it would be producing its first MOOC on the edX platform. Still a way off from accepting these courses within their prized degree programmes, this represents another huge shift towards the acceptance of e-learning.
The fact many large organisations are embracing the possibilities of online learning has also put pressure on the institutions, meaning employability-focused courses are more sought after than ever. For example, firms can now integrate Coursera into their own learning portals, track employees’ participation, and provide their desired menu of courses. If academic institutions are willing to help provide these career-focused education programmes, then everyone could benefit from these opportunities.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR E-LEARNING PROVIDERS?
So what does this mean for established edtech companies facilitating online degrees? We can see that MOOCs have been hugely important in bridging the gap between e-learning possibilities and academic institutions. It may give edtech companies like us the foundations they need to work even more closely with the most established academic institutions.
The arguments for on-campus education are still vocal and strong. They fact that students learn how to debate, present themselves, and make valuable contacts has been the last thread that many have clung on to. However, in recent years this is a problem that’s been confronted by innovative e-learning providers.
Software that allows you to record and upload audio and video presentations, and live chat forums for students an tutors, mean greater interaction within the class,providing a large part of the social value that was deemed taken away by online learning. The technology is here, and following in the MOOC footsteps, it’s now time to solidify these relationships with established institutions to provide more accessible and flexible educations that meet the academic rigour of long established courses and programmes.