Voices

Will online courses overtake the traditional degree?

By Simon Nelson,

CEO, Futurelearn, UK

19 April 2017 - 15:20

We asked Simon Nelson, the CEO of online learning platform FutureLearn, for his predictions about online learning.

How is digital technology changing higher education?

The whole world of higher education is going digital. It's a fundamental shift in classrooms and lecture halls, but also in research, recruitment, marketing, and promotion.

Students expect that they will learn and be taught in a way that takes advantage of the devices that dominate the rest of life: smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

Universities are thinking beyond 'lecture capture' (filming lectures from the back of the room and archiving them online). Teachers are considering how to create high-quality online courses, and how to keep students engaged and interested, using a variety of texts and online social interaction.

The digital shift also affects how students are asked to prepare for class. Now, they can access information and resources online, instead of getting a reading list for the library. Professors can ask students to do online courses alongside face-to-face classes. The ‘flipped classroom’ will become increasingly common, where students will prepare for classes and absorb information online, and then attend classes to discuss the material covered.

What other changes do you foresee?

Digital technology may change student demographics. Online classes make it possible to teach a vast range of learners of different ages, backgrounds and countries. Higher education institutions are thinking about who their new 'customers' might be, beyond their traditional student body, and how this will affect the cost of what they offer.

Increasingly, you will see top universities offering whole online degrees. Some are already doing this for graduate degrees. You'll also see courses being modularised: broken into sections, so that you can cherry-pick the parts that you need. This phenomenon is called 'unbundling' in the industry.

Finally, everything has to work on a smartphone, so course design will be mobile-responsive. Digital technology used to be treated with fear, but it can be wonderfully liberating. It forces a re-imagining of the traditional degree.

Why is social interaction important in online classes, and what's the best way to manage it?

In the past, online learning has been a lonely experience. But now, social interaction is the dominant way that people behave on the web.

When we started our company, FutureLearn, four years ago, we had to decide whether to use the social media platforms that people were already using, or build new ones from scratch. We decided on the latter, to set ourselves apart from competing companies, but also to make sure that learners stayed focused on what they were studying, rather than getting distracted on another platform.

All courses are broken into steps: you might watch a video, then be invited to join a discussion about it. There should be questions and moments of reflection dotted throughout the course. The educator takes part in the discussion between students, and monitors and responds to their comments and questions. This goes a long way towards matching the student-teacher relationship in a traditional classroom environment.

Do students need face-to-face time with their professors and peers?

There is a lot that you can't replicate online. For many 18-year-old undergraduates, the experience of heading off to university is about much more than just the academic degree. Some subjects, like healthcare and engineering, require practical hands-on learning. But when today's students arrive at university, they expect digital technology to be part of how they are taught.

I think that one-to-one or 'one-to-few' attention from the teacher is more important than face-to-face time. What's important is the interaction between the student and the educator. This doesn't necessarily need to be face-to-face: ideas, debate and general discussion can also be stimulated online.

Do you think online learning will make location, such as cities, irrelevant?

We’re not trying to reproduce the overall university experience. I think the experience in physical settings will change, but that’s not to say campus-based universities will become obsolete.

What are the benefits of these changes?

Digital technology offers flexibility, access, and convenience. It encourages people to think about new learning tools, and how to make studying easy and enjoyable.

A recent special report in The Economist quoted that only 16 per cent of Americans think that a four-year degree course prepares students for a well-paid job. Digital education allows people to keep learning throughout their lives, so they remain competitive in the job market.

It also opens higher education up to all levels of society and across countries. During the last outbreak of Ebola, we ran a course on the disease with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Almost two per cent of the 18,100 enrolments on the first run of the course came from Sierra Leone, which was badly affected. One of these students, who worked in an Ebola treatment centre, emailed us to ask for certificates for 40 of his colleagues. They had all done the course too, sharing the content on his single mobile download.

How do digital courses generate money?

There are excellent free massive open online courses (MOOCs), but not everything has to be free. Learners buy certificates, corporations pay for their employees to take courses, and universities pay platform fees to run their courses. For employers, a vast proportion of their training budget goes on travel and accommodation, so online courses are a particularly attractive professional development alternative.

However, we need to be careful not to over-hype the potential of digital technology. Higher education institutions will need to work out how to make money from their investments. Finding the right way to monetise any digital business is challenging, especially if it has a social mission, like education.

Simon will speak at Going Global, the British Council's international higher education conference taking place in London from 22 May to 24 May 2017.

Find out more about Simon's session, 'No future for cities in a digital age'.

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