Posted on: July 3, 2014

What’s Next in Online Education?

What’s Next in Online Education?

Over the last decade, there has been a tangible shift in education towards online programs. While online programs have not replaced the on-campus experience, they have come a long way from their beginnings, both in terms of technology & culture.

In the early days of online or distance education, students would read some material, send in their coursework via email, and visit a local testing center for their exams. Despite the recent rise and popularization of distance learning, it is not new – it has been around for several decades, with mail-in courses and lectures on VHS tapes that long-time professionals in the field still remember sending to their students. The recent rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), however, has prompted major research universities around the world to quickly increase their numbers of online offerings and has led to a cultural change in the way that society now views online learning. While online learning is still not as widely accepted as regular on-campus education, attitudes are changing for the better – after all, if Harvard has online courses, it must be ok, right?

MOOCs: What, Where and Why?
So, what are these MOOCs that have education leaders worried? MOOCs stands for “Massive Open Online Courses” and they are just that – online courses that are open to all, which usually makes for a very high number of registered students. These courses are usually free, which provides the access to all, with occasional option to pay for an extra certificate. In the past few years, several large companies and non-profits such as Coursera, EdX and Udacity, have arisen, making MOOCs even more popular and accessible, offering interesting courses in various fields from professors at top world institutions. These courses are user-friendly and can be attended by anyone from anywhere, as long as they have a good internet connection. To give an idea of just how massive these courses (and companies) have become, we can look at Coursera alone, which boasts 5,592,076 students, 543 courses and 107 partners. And this is what has the traditional education community worried – that students will now opt for free MOOCs instead of the traditional college degree. However, the MOOCs do not actually provide college degrees! And the vast majority of people taking these individual courses are doing so only for their own professional development or amusement. There is no need to fear MOOCs; in fact, they actually serve the entire field of distance learning in popularizing online education and making it more mainstream and, therefore, acceptable, as well as in forcing institutions to spend more time, money and effort on their online classes ensuring the continued high quality of online education. I am not alone in my view; at the 19th Annual Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning, which took place in Lake Buena Vista, Florida on November 20-23, 2013, Daphne Koller, Co-founder of Coursera, stated that most “Courserians” are taking courses to further their own professional development. “I don’t know about your field, but a lot has changed in my field of computer science since I received my degree,” Koller joked.

Online Education Growth
So, if the MOOCs will not take over online education, what will happen? Well, there is a lot of great news. First, it has shown consistent growth over the last ten years. According the 2012 Survey of Online Learning, conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group, over 6.7 million students are now taking at least one online course, and 32% of higher education students now take at least one course online. Finally, while individual faculty members and members of the public are still unsure of the quality of online higher education as compared to on-campus, according to the same Babson survey, 77% of academic leaders rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or even superior to those in face-to-face classes.

Online Education in Practice
Having experienced online education from all angles, as a student, a professor and administrator and even a marketer, I can state from personal experience that online education is a very practical and cost-effective way to study and earn a degree. In fact, in several recent unofficial student surveys, online education was rated as having the best value. In speaking to online students here at Virginia International University, most comment on how convenient it is. Because the classes are so flexible, they can accommodate any schedule, leaving students in all time zones able to work, maintain family responsibilities and study at times convenient to them. Most students cite an initial fear of online courses, as they are unused to them and not sure what to expect; and then, without exception, all are pleasantly surprised by how interactive the courses are and how much support and feedback they receive from their VIU Online professors.

In conclusion, recent technological developments and adoption of online learning by leading educational institutions has made it easier for online learning to enter the mainstream. With competition created by the propagation of online learning, also spurred on by MOOCs, now is the absolute best time to enroll in an online degree program to take advantage of the latest advances and gain the best value. Written by Katherine Magalif.