Monday, January 22, 2018

Will global online higher education ever take off?

Will global online higher education ever take off? Christopher Ziguras19 January 2018 Issue No:489

Twenty years ago, at the beginning of the dot.com bubble, it seemed as though the advent of the internet would quickly lead to the rise of unstoppable new global online education providers, able to enrol hundreds of thousands of students in courses led by the biggest names in each discipline. 

We saw another wave of hysteria around 2012 – the year of the MOOC or massive open online course – with more dire warnings that universities as we know them were on borrowed time.

Back in the late 1990s the Australian and British governments funded major research projects on the rise of ‘borderless’ education, as it came to be known. It would use technology to transcend national boundaries, bridge the gulf between industry and academia and integrate the public and private sectors. 

In 2001, the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, or OBHE, was founded in London to study disruptive innovations worldwide, but on 11-12 December 2017 the Observatory’s Global Forum in London pondered the question ‘Whatever happened to the promise of global online learning?’




Digital transformation of the classroom

Clearly, digital transformation is having profound effects on every aspect of education, as the borderless education proponents envisaged. Are there any aspects of teaching and educational administration that have remained untouched? 

Even the shape of furniture in classrooms has changed; blackboards, overhead projectors and whiteboards have all been made redundant by portable devices. The classroom is instead a place for collaboration so chairs now face each other rather than the front of the room. The OBHE has been busily reporting on these transformations, especially in relation to cross-border delivery, such as international branch campuses.

Around the world the change in the number of students in online degrees is surprisingly variable. In Australia, numbers are growing steadily with 20% of domestic students studying in ‘external’ mode in 2016 – up from 15% 10 years earlier, according to recently released Department of Education and Training data. (International students in Australia are not allowed to study fully online, but more about that later.) 

In other countries though, such as the UK and South Korea, long-standing distance education providers and open universities are having it tough, according to the OBHE’s research.

The scale of fully-online provision

Moreover, when we look at cross-border education, the scale of fully online provision is still miniscule. There are around 150,000 students outside Australia enrolled in Australian qualifications: two-thirds in university programmes and the rest in vocational and upper secondary qualifications. 

Virtually all of the school and vocational education students, and more than 90% of those in higher education, are studying on a branch campus or with a local partner institution. And yet for decades we have seen predictions that students who cannot travel abroad to study, either due to cost or commitments at home, would seek out foreign study options online.

The same pattern is evident in UK transnational education. The world’s largest transnational provider, the University of London, has provided curricula and examinations for students studying around the world since 1858. 

The vast majority of its students enrol with a local teaching institution that provides facilities, tutorials and support services, as has been the case for over 150 years – even though independent study is much more engaging now with the availability of online platforms that have replaced the correspondence model. 

Its new independent online masters programmes were showcased at the OBHE forum and these are growing steadily, but from a very small base compared to its large-scale partner-supported undergraduate programmes.

Why don’t students enrol in foreign online degrees?


Many forms of online education, such as MOOCs, and educational apps like Duolingo and Australia-based Mathletics have attracted millions of users from all over the world, so why don’t students enrol in foreign online degrees?

First, there remains a widespread prejudice against online learning (from students and governments) in many parts of the world, even though the quality of student experience is improving with better bandwidth and more engaging curriculum design. 

Many governments, including China, India and Vietnam, refuse point blank to recognise foreign degrees undertaken online, citing a range of concerns. They believe the quality of online study is inferior, legitimate providers are difficult to distinguish from online degree mills and they perceive online student fraud to be rife.

International students in Australia, too, are wary. Over the past year there has been a push to remove a requirement in the National Code of Practice stipulating that international students must take at least 75% of their studies in on-campus mode. 

The biggest opposition to this came from international student organisations who were concerned that students could be forced to study in what they perceived as inferior online versions of courses by institutions charging high fees but wanting to cut costs. 

The compromise amendment (which comes into force this year) requires that “a registered provider must not deliver more than one-third of the units (or equivalent) of a higher education or vocational education and training course by online or distance learning to an overseas student”.

Second, the reputation of online providers doesn’t travel as far as you might imagine. Two dynamic online providers who presented at the OBHE’s Global Forum, Melbourne’s Swinburne and Barcelona’s Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, reported drawing half or more of their online students from their home state. Nearly all of the remainder came from elsewhere in the country, with a few Australian or Spanish expats residing abroad.

Third, foreign online education is prohibitively expensive. Done well, online provision still hasn’t delivered significant economies of scale, largely because personal engagement with learners is very labour intensive. 

Campus-based transnational education can usually be delivered at a significantly lower cost than study on campus in Australia or the UK because a high proportion of the teaching is done by locally-employed staff at much lower cost than would be the case on the home campus. It is not unusual for fees at a branch campus to be half of those charged in the home country. 

Online education, by contrast, still typically uses teaching staff based in the provider’s home country, and the fees charged are usually the same regardless of where the student is located. For most of the world’s prospective international students, a foreign online programme is going to be way more expensive than any on-campus option offered in their own city.

On-the-job training versus postgrad programmes

It is likely that perceptions of quality will improve and reputations may travel further. Deakin University’s partnership with UK-based FutureLearn to deliver full postgraduate programmes globally will be an interesting test case, with free MOOC tasters to demonstrate quality and global reach. 

The global market for continuing professional development is sure to grow considerably in coming decades and we are starting to see some very interesting pedagogical models that blur the boundaries between on-the-job training and full postgraduate programmes.

Those at the leading edge are using online platforms to facilitate the stacking of micro-credentials, the recognition of prior learning and creating much more engaging peer-to-peer learning, perhaps with the occasional residential intensive thrown in for those who want to meet up, perhaps on the sidelines of a related industry conference. 

You would think that such models would easily appeal to a global student body, but that’s what we thought 20 years ago.

Professor Christopher Ziguras is president of the International Education Association of Australia, and deputy dean (international), School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, Australia.


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