Online degrees: raising standards

Nancy Coleman asks; can an online experience ever deliver the same levels of quality of teaching and learning?

The latest figures show record numbers of applications – despite fees and declining numbers of 18-year-olds – and rising numbers from areas of the country with traditionally low application rates. But in reality, these figures and the impact of the lifting of the recruitment cap are just the tip of the iceberg. 

In one of his last speeches as HE Minister, David Willetts took a very clear stand on the future. To prosper, to be more self-reliant, then the UK sector needed to expand, growing its role and level of visibility within the global market for students. To deliver expansion at the kind of scale needed, universities had to move online. 

The OECD estimates that the market for degrees will build from around 129 million (based on numbers of 24 to 35-year-olds holding degrees) up to 204 million by 2020. Wherever they can, as we already know from students in the Far East and India, and more emerging markets in South America and Africa, will be aiming for a degree with a ‘world-class’ quality stamp, from the UK, US, Australia etc. 

From my perspective, building up online provision for US universities (including a programme of 25 fully online programmes running across 42 countries for Boston University), the UK is playing catch-up. I recognise the position from, say, eight years ago in the US when online degrees were perceived to be the lesser degree, more likely to be offered by smaller, private sector operators. Now an online degree is very much part of the mainstream, considered to be an important part of the offering of leading institutions and a respected qualification among the big employers. The conversation about quality is essentially an ‘old’ one, with a plethora of academic studies having found that online programmes are equal to – or better than – traditional face-to-face education.

We faced just the same issues: can standards ever be the same? Can an online experience ever deliver the same levels of quality of teaching and learning, of support and engagement with an institution? But what’s happened in the US is that the necessities (for expansion, for offering more choice, to get an institution’s brand out to wider audiences domestically and internationally) have taken over. The debate has moved on from whether online degrees are credible to who’s the provider, what are the specifics of the programme, and the kinds of support services provided. 

Online degrees, of course, aren’t a replacement for the core recruitment group of young people looking for a traditional full-time, classroom-based experience, that important rite of passage that HE provides. But that also doesn’t mean the online student experience is inevitably a limited or poor one, just different. What we’re seeing is the development of a student experience rooted in a rich and highly interactive digital culture which works on a number of levels. Study is generally more flexible and can be more tailored to individual needs; students become part of larger and more diverse community of learners, join virtual study groups and message boards, and are plugged into the idea of supporting and challenging each other; degree programme content is more consciously designed to be interactive and involve joint working.

What we’ve also learnt from the shift to online is the impact on lecturers. Rather than being the ‘sage on stage’, academics are being tested to re-think the content of what they deliver, what is going to work online and what will be most effective in terms of learning? Lecturers, in general, have found this refreshing. It’s shaken up their material and helped them sharpen their thinking about their subject and the reception if degree-level teaching. Online education, particularly the kind aimed at adult learners, is focused on outcomes, and ideal for helping students merge their academic and professional portfolios. Academic assignments will often invite students to bring real world business ‘problems’ into the virtual classroom, and work on solving practical challenges that enhance their learning in multiple contexts.

UK HE needs to move on if it’s not to be left behind. And it’s not only international recruitment and overcoming migration caps that are the issue. Getting the online offering right will be critical in addressing the slide in numbers of part-time (down 10.8% in the last year) and postgrads on taught courses – a whole tranche of potential students looking for an alternative option.

Nancy Coleman is Vice-President of Academic Services, PlattForm,