The Future of higher education in the age of online learning

 

Society is changing at an unprecedented pace. Today, self-driving cars and phones that schedule hair appointments are no longer fiction, but reality. An estimated 6 billion people now have access to cellphones (whereas 4.5 billion have access to toilets). Given the way technology is transforming society, it is natural to wonder: What will the future of higher education look like?

This question rose to the fore of public discourse a few years back with the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) - a term coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier at the University of Prince Edward Island. These free (or low-cost), widely available online courses quickly skyrocketed in popularity, with 2012 coined the “Year of the MOOC”. There was hope that MOOCs would make tertiary education accessible to those who could not traditionally afford it. The flurry of interest even led some to question the need for traditional universities, suggesting they might soon become obsolete.

 There was hope that MOOCs would make tertiary education accessible to those who could not traditionally afford it.

There was hope that MOOCs would make tertiary education accessible to those who could not traditionally afford it.

Yet only a few years later, the hype surrounding MOOCs has died down significantly. Yes, there are problems with student retention -- typically less than 10% of students complete an online course -- though a recent study suggests how subtle changes to course design might boost this figure. There are also problems with quality levels and certificate validity, but those are being addressed using blockchain technology. The real issue is that employers recognize that certain skills can’t be learned online. As a job seeker, if you don’t have alternative experience to prove those missing competences to an employer, a fully online degree won’t get you as far as an offline one.

In a recent interview, Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera (one of the largest MOOC providers), notes that MOOCs were never intended to replace universities. In fact, Coursera partners with universities to deliver high-value educational content to a broad spectrum of students. In terms of making education more accessible, three quarters of students enrolled in Coursera courses already have university degrees, suggesting that the content is complementing rather than supplementing traditional higher education.

The reason that MOOCs are not replacing, but instead complementing traditional universities is simple, certain knowledge and skills are suitable to be taught online, others are more effectively taught in person by a professor, on a team or in another real life setting. At Brighter Investment we’ve seen examples where teaching (parts of) a course online has a very positive impact on both quality and efficiency. At the same time, employers tell us that for young graduates they continue to highly value teamwork experience. In many professional fields lab experience or experience with highly specialized equipment is also important. These are all examples of skills that are much harder to transfer online. Our research also indicates that further on in a graduate’s career, personal networks built while in university continue to be a boost to career progression.

 In many professional fields lab experience or experience with highly specialized equipment is important for job prospects.

In many professional fields lab experience or experience with highly specialized equipment is important for job prospects.

MOOCs can be a very efficient way to transfer existing knowledge from teacher to student. We have found that all of the best degrees not only provide a transfer of knowledge from teacher to student, but teach students to push the envelope of that knowledge themselves. To investigate, and hopefully discover, something new. Universities’ objective is to educate tomorrow’s leaders in their respective fields, a role that by definition requires the skill of tackling the unknown. To train future leaders, it remains essential to have one on one interaction (online or offline) between the student and a teacher that is a leader in his/her field of expertise.

The resulting trend is aimed towards more blended courses, partially taught online, partially taught at higher education institutions and partly taught on the job. For these blended degrees, subjects and skills are taught in the environment that does so most effectively. The Canadian software company Shopify is collaborating with Carlton university on a computer science degree where students pick up skills on the job that were hard to teach on campus.

Including online teaching in a degree program does not only offer potential improvement of teaching the original curriculum, it is also used to offer students completely new subjects. At the Imperial College London for example, undergraduates in the engineering faculty have been following online business courses, a subject previously not part of the curriculum. Blended degrees can be set up in a more modular fashion allowing for highly individualized programs. Under this model, the role of the university changes from purely a provider, to a blended provider, integrator and curator of knowledge as well as a brand that serves as quality assurance.

While it’s hard to predict the future, current trends suggest that universities will continue to play an integral role in higher education. The only constant is change - it’s up to universities to adapt in order to remain at the forefront of their field. The universities that do this well, will be able to teach more relevant courses and teach those courses more effectively. In the end it is the students that stand to gain the most from this change, as they’ll see an increased return in value from the time and funds they invest in their education. By always investing in those programs that excel at creating value for our students, employers and our investors, Brighter Investment will be a catalyst for these innovations.