Whatever happened to the promise of online learning?

Online learning always talks big. Some combination of enrolment growth, enhanced teaching and learning, wider access and lower costs has been promised in the name of online learning over the last 20+ years. These promises have often been phrased in terms of new market entrants and disruption to conventional institutions.

There is no question that digital technologies are increasingly mainstream in UK universities and universities around the world, and there are many dedicated online institutions, but twenty years on online learning might be better described as supplementary. Like all prior technological interventions in higher education, and all historical forms of distance learning, is the reality that online learning is (sometimes) useful but far from revolutionary?

I have spent the past two decades trying to answer this question as the Director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE), which was founded in 2001 to track worldwide developments in online learning, transnational delivery and new competition. OBHE is hosting a 2017 Global Forum in London on 11-12 December to debate the role of online learning in higher education around the world.

Dot com and beyond

The idea for OBHE came out of a report, The Business of Borderless Education, commissioned by CVCP (now Universities UK) and HEFCE, and published in 2000. In the late 1990s – the dotcom era – vice-chancellors and government officials were both excited and worried that higher education might be rapidly disrupted by the Internet. Prognosticators imagined a future of widely accessible, inexpensive online degrees offered by a handful of global providers.

The foreword of the borderless education report announced the UK eUniversity, a generously funded but short-lived government initiative to take advantage of the supposed opportunity to enroll lots of international students in online degrees.

In 2017, what is the state of online learning? In the UK, domestic distance higher education enrollment is actually in decline. What HESA terms “distance, flexible and distributed” students peaked at about 11% of undergraduates (c.220,000) and 10% of postgraduates (c.55,000) in 2009/10. By 2015/16, total distance enrollment had fallen by 35%, most obviously at sub-degree level but also among bachelor’s and master’s students. Over the same period, full-time students were up 9%.

The primary cause of the distance learning drop was higher tuition fees and reduced public funding for part-time undergraduates. Almost all domestic distance learners in UK higher education study part-time. Distance enrollment held up better than part-time numbers overall, which almost halved over the period.

The UK’s largest distance institution, the Open University, dropped from 209,000 to 126,000 students between 2009/10 and 2015/16. Other institutions saw distance enrollment rebound in recent years but the total is still short of the 2009/10 baseline, and some 64,000 domestic distance students are scattered across 124 colleges and universities.

The UK has a long history of distance learning for students located outside the UK, but again recent performance has been underwhelming. Of the four TNE modes distinguished by HESA, distance learning was the only one that failed to grow enrollment between 2009/10 and 2015/16. Enrollment in international branch campuses (IBC) of UK universities more than doubled, as did students registered at an overseas institution for a UK award. Registration at a UK HEI with a non-IBC overseas presence also grew strongly. Distance TNE enrollment was 114,000 in 2015/16 but average enrollment- beyond the two largest providers (University of London International and Open University) was only 619 students.

Inconsistent reporting may be a factor, but it may also be that institutions and students are opting for a blend of online and in-person study not well captured in HESA’s typology.

How does the UK situation compare to other countries?

Ironically, in a borderless world, there is little common understanding of how different countries have grappled with online learning.  OBHE is in the midst of a series of country cases studies about online higher education. Among the countries looked at so far, five categories emerge:

  • Distance, Not Online. Large distance learning sector with little or no use of online learning beyond some MOOC enthusiasm (e.g. Egypt, India)
  • Marginal. Strong growth in campus enrollment, with some online elements. Most distance learning is blended with in-person study centers (e.g. Saudi Arabia, UAE)
  • Blurred Growth. A poorly defined combination of informal, distance and online learning enrollment continues to out-perform the overall market (e.g. Mexico, Spain)
  • Clear Growth. A clear online distance learning sector continues to out-perform the overall market (e.g. United States)
  • Peaked/Decline. Online enrollment growth has been at the expense of the national distance university. Online enrollment is peaking or is in decline (e.g. South Korea, UK)

What is common to all the countries considered so far is that online distance learning has yet to command more than 15% market share, implementation of online elements as part of a face-to-face experience is uneven, multifarious and hard to track within and between institutions, and online learning has little to no association with cost or price reduction. Moreover, outcomes data for online students is rarely reported at institutional or national level, but what data there is tends to position online learning outcomes as below average. The value proposition of online degrees quickly defaults to little more than flexibility and convenience.

Reality bytes

Today’s online learning is great so far as it goes, but the big promises have not been fulfilled.

The real tension may be between the irrational exuberance of online advocates and the realities of slower, piecemeal adoption. The very success of online learning in higher education might be characterized as a compromise between stasis and change. Another perspective is that online learning is only now getting into its stride. The marketing around “next generation” MOOCs suggests a new frontier of online innovation that harks back to the promises of the early days. The combination of elite universities, degree alternatives, rationalized pedagogy, job placement and low prices suggests attention is being paid to operational realism, scale and market appeal. In the UK, JISC’s learning analytics work, envisaging a national service for UK higher education, a world first, is nothing if not ambitious.

The UK, like every other higher education system, has big problems to solve, such as widening access, improving affordability, raising quality and closing attainment gaps. It is hard to imagine a world where demand for postsecondary education and lifelong learning will do anything other than grow, and equally hard to imagine a scenario where technology innovation is not an essential component of system and institution-level problem-solving. The promise of online learning- however defined- needs to be dusted off and taken seriously.

4 responses to “Whatever happened to the promise of online learning?

  1. Very interesting. I should declare an interest before commenting. I work in a Work based learning department which uses an online learning platform, amongst other delivery mechanisms. Our numbers have grown steadily in recent years, despite a number of external shocks, such as the fee increases. What has always interested me about this topic is the way ‘technology’ elbows aside pedagogical considerations. There is a failure to utilise the many pedagogical insights which have emerged from Dewey onwards. We still have a very rigid approach to curriculum design and what is considered relevant knowledge in HE. The OU in particular is an interesting example of this. It seems institutions are frozen into practices which are increasingly at odds with the way distance learners wish to learn. The prescribed solution- e-learning platforms- are part of the solution but only a part. The greater challenge is to devise programmes which people are prepared to pay for- and that involves pedagogical innovation.

    That this appears to be on no one’s agenda highlights the scale of the challenge. Woodrow Wilson once remarked that it is easier to change the location of a cemetery than it is to change a curriculum. In HE we see ourselves of defenders of the Enlightenment: what we have become is defenders an approach to education attuned to an industrial world, not a post-industrial one.

  2. Hi John,

    You may be confusing curriculum and pedagogy. The question of what knowledge should be in the higher curriculum has nothing to do with technology and online learning. Yes we could use a greater range of pedagogical insights, but that is no reason to introduce curricula that just reflect what learners might want (or think they want…). Best, Don.

  3. Actually, I don’t think John is confused at all. His observation that “‘technology’ elbows aside pedagogical considerations” is spot on. I know exactly what he means. The elbowing is an epidemic. Dale

  4. Hi,

    my experience is that there’s no lessening in the tension between “bricks and mortar” and “online & distance learning”. Universities have been quick to plough money into new buildings and enhancing the campus experience in a way that often hasn’t been matched by investment in the online space. In some places this is seen a binary choice, a new build is thought of a means investing in our students right here and now, the right thing to do for VC’s who lack confidence in digital.

    The worse aspect is that the gap left by a lack of digital leadership is being filled piece-meal by academics who are adopting technologies in a way that isn’t consistent for students. Whilst the academics may be trying their best to listen to their students and enhance the learning through technology, they may in fact be making things worse for their students, with frustration over this lack of consistency and university-wide joined up approach reflected in NSS.

    Universities with robust digital strategies, that use the opportunity of online and distance learning will be able to provide a better blended experience for their campus-based students. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

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