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Online learning - have you tried it?

We should redefine education for an open and inclusive experience says Kathryn Skelton, Head of Strategy at FutureLearn

Posted by Charley Rogers | February 09, 2017 | Higher education

The word ‘education’ is usually accompanied by a prefix - ‘higher’, ‘undergraduate’, or ‘postgraduate’ - triggering academic associations. But what about the word ‘education’ as a stand-alone? What if we could redefine the word, or at least its connotations, to become more inclusive?

In the past, education was deemed a finite process, limited to school years and to university - if you had the opportunity to attend. Today, the concept of lifelong learning has prompted us to review the term ‘education’. Broader motivations to learn, plus the enabling influence of technology mean that education is now more mainstream.

Research from Parthenon-EY, The Open University, and FutureLearn shows that it’s not only specialists and academics on board - now everyone is becoming familiar with the concept. We frequently hear that we are undergoing an evolution in the education landscape - is this evolution starting to provide new ways of learning which can support those who need it most?

15% of UK adults (approximately 9m people) have either completed a short online course or are intending to do so in the near future.

Recent statistics show that 58 million learners worldwide have signed up to a least one MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), but who are these people and what are their motivations for enrolling? Thanks to changing demands within the job market and the rapid advancement of technology, up-skillers and those learning to satisfy their intellectual curiosity have helped to make online learning a mainstream activity.

The report from Parthenon-EY, The OU and FutureLearn also indicates that 15% of UK adults (approximately 9m people) have either completed a short online course or are intending to do so in the near future.

One third of those doing short online courses are leisure learners, looking to quench an intellectual thirst by learning more about the world around them. The remaining two thirds are studying for career-related reasons. Online platforms are starting to bridge the gap between academia and employment, as working professionals seek out e-learning as a means of differentiating themselves in an increasingly competitive job market.

Changing technology has also fuelled an ‘on-demand’ culture, and those who previously had not considered education are exposed to its availability through mobile devices, widespread internet access, and the range of online tools available. The social interaction and peer support offered by online cohorts offers a way of making learning at a distance feel less lonely. A modular approach to learning, supported by short online courses which build towards qualifications, allows newcomers to education more flexibility and a far lower cost of entry. What’s more, technology in education gives us the means to break down international borders, meaning that people can access courses from leading academics regardless of where they are in the world, and learn alongside people of different backgrounds and nationalities.

Convergence between the academic student, the developing professional and the simply curious is broadening the way we think of ‘education’, and with so many options, it’s not hard to see how online learning is becoming a mainstream activity. 

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