E-learning makes new gains in the higher education sector

Jeremy C Bradley, Executive Director at Edology, shares his insight on the evolution of e-learning

The objectives facing higher and further education providers are transforming. One largely unanticipated aspect of blending modern technology with education delivery methods has been the introduction of and increases in tuition fees, which has caused a shift in power when it comes to higher education stakeholders. Since £1,000 per year tuitions fees were introduced in the UK in 1998, fees have skyrocketed, with many universities now setting fees at £9,250 per year.

As a result, higher education is rapidly moving from being a predominantly public sector concern to more of a commercial concern. Encouragingly, this means that education standards can be raised through competition between learning providers. Yet, it also signifies a change in how students view themselves. Firstly, it shifts their expectations – students are now education consumers and have the right to demand value for money. Furthermore, as paying customers they feel justified in deciding by what measure their own satisfaction is valued. It is becoming clear that universities need to retain a modernised approach to take account of this shift in the balance of power.

Against this backdrop, e-learning has been steadily gaining ground. There is now a definite trend toward e-learning as a recognised and respected means of education, and it is essential for e-learning providers to pick up the baton and run with it – whilst bearing in mind that it is a marathon, not a sprint.

During my years of working at the leading edge of developments in e-learning, I have observed the industry’s progress first-hand. Over this time, approaches to e-learning have been amended and refined alongside the technology it utilises. Importantly, education institutions can now operate within an environment that conforms to the standard models of business, and to some extent to the classical model of supply and demand. However, it is probable that in the future the cost of e-learning for students will fall as demand rises. With this in mind, it is decisive that colleges and universities are now able to adopt a sustainable model for the provision of online learning that moves away from the traditional expenses associated with the design and implementation of new campus programmes. In this regard, notable institutions such as Harvard University and MIT have been able, along with other prominent education institutions, to validate and further these positive movements in e-learning.

There is now a definite trend toward e-learning as a recognised and respected means of education, and it is essential for e-learning providers to pick up the baton and run with it 

Just as significantly, private companies of all sizes have also been persuaded by the quantifiable value e-learning can now bring to their businesses. The improved convenience of delivery has been crucial, and these companies see increases in productivity and higher rates of employee retention within their workforce. Naturally, investing in training enables a business to improve the expertise of their managers and employees. Beyond this, the positive climate of ongoing professional development, for students and academic staff alike, produces an environment of collaboration, investigation, and continuous self-development.

Due to the very nature of modern technology, advances and upgrades to e-learning are progressive and rolling. Materials and modules can be maintained and updated according to new discoveries, innovations, or industry developments; there is no need for modules to be redesigned in their entirety as any of the relevant academic content can be written by an expert in the field and updated as necessary. The process is not only cost-effective, but can also be carried out in a relatively short time period so that newly updated content can then be inserted digitally into the online programme in a way which does not unduly interfere with the rest of the syllabus content. This ensures that the education provided is always current and relevant.

The successes of e-learning can also be continued by engaging with the consumers of e-learning products and services themselves – students. In 2017, the first major changes in the UK’s National Student Survey (NSS) questions were introduced, including new sections on the learning community, learning opportunities, and the student voice. There are now also nine new questions focusing on student engagement specifically. That said, as the purpose of NSS is to inform student choice and provide reassurance about the quality of UK higher education, it really shouldn’t be long until any useful evaluation of distance learning considers LMS reliability and usability, the quality of course materials such as e-books, HD videos, case studies, and audio files, as well as the level of tutor support and supervision received. From the students’ side, these are the key markers in their satisfaction.

Any future challenges are certainly there to be met, and it seems that there are positive solutions to the modern expectations of students and businesses as consumers of education. The unremitting task in successfully sustaining higher education is to constantly improve standards of learning, to maintain the credibility of educational qualifications, and to ensure that the student experience is both satisfactory and viable. As it has evolved, e-learning has begun to provide a feasible approach to ensure the commercial viability and the educational integrity of higher and further education as it continually moves forward.

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