Exploring the future of online degrees.
GUEST COLUMN | by Simon Nelson
The digital shift in society has navigated its way into the higher education sector, prompting the reimagining of the delivery of education. My company’s partnership with Deakin University opened up the way to fully online degrees on our platform and we are delighted to be partnering with Coventry University to announce the launch of 50 fully online degrees over the next five years. A three- or four-year undergraduate degree was once sufficient for those looking to target a career within a specific sector; but job roles are evolving so quickly that universities are looking towards new models of delivery to cater for the learners of today. At the same time, universities are looking to digital to enhance and future-proof their brand to enable them to attract students from home and abroad.
Building the university brand on a global scale
The current political climate has brought the issue of student recruitment to the forefront with universities being forced to look fort new ways to attract and serve international students. The online degree model enables higher education institutions to overcome the physical and geographical boundaries imposed on traditional campus universities. By accessing the most remote corners of the globe, online learning platforms enable universities to take their courses out into new territories, straight to the learner at their home, helping the university to compete globally whilst elevating their brand.
Job roles are evolving so quickly that universities are looking towards new models of delivery to cater for the learners of today.
We were delighted to be able to align, both strategically and in spirit, with Deakin University – the first partner to offer fully online degrees on our platform. Our experience with Deakin has taught us that where borders are closing, universities need to continue to provide international learning experiences for students, where learners can engage with peers worldwide. Digital platforms can deliver education effectively, and at scale, helping universities to extend beyond the campus walls.
One size doesn’t fit all
Education is no longer solely aimed at the elite who can afford to attend a physical university. Today, education needs to encompass the requirements of adult and professional learners across their lives. People are constantly competing to climb the career ladder and as such are looking for fit-for-purpose qualifications to evidence their skills. Studying a degree online permits greater flexibility, particularly for those looking to build on their skills as they continue to work part-time or full-time. The online approach frees learners from the constraints of physical classroom settings, granting them the flexibility to access information at their own convenience and at their own pace.
Student expectations are shifting
PwC reminds us that today’s young graduates will populate the majority of the workforce, with millennials set to make up 50 percent of the global workforce by 2020. If the digital native of today is going to dominate the workforce, then higher education institutions need to offer solutions to ensure they are prepared. The student of today is used to consuming digital content delivered using cutting edge techniques, in bite-sized chunks. Learners expect to have an enjoyable learning experience where they’re able to connect with educational material in an engaging way that stimulates further discussion. To cater for these learners, it is important that education delivered digitally makes use of the tools out there so that it is in-keeping with other forms of digital content and meets the expectations of consumers today. Teaching methods should adapt to accommodate this, whether it’s adopting a ‘flipped’ learning experience where learners study content online and discuss ideas covered in a classroom setting, or adapting content for online delivery.
Try before you buy
Students today are faced with the prospect of significant debt. So whether it’s paying for undergraduate or postgraduate study, they need to know what they’re paying for. The online approach has enabled more transparent access to course material and the delivery of online degrees enables this idea of greater transparency. Learners may begin studying for free and complete a range of short pathway courses before deciding to enrol in the full qualification, making learning both manageable and flexible. Ultimately, it’s important for learners to benefit from a greater element of choice in the composition of their degree, so that what they’re paying for is what they expect and what they want to learn.
Campus-based universities with live lectures will always have a central place in the delivery of higher education, but there’s no doubt that student demands are evolving. Today’s students need to feel confident that the course they’re committing to is fit-for-purpose; it’s the university’s responsibility to ensure they are meeting the changing needs of their existing students, as well as reaching out to new audiences on an international scale too.
We believe that the digital delivery of higher education—at distance, and where appropriate, at scale—will become increasingly important in meeting the changing needs of students and in addressing some of the challenges (whether financial, political, or international), that higher education institutions are facing today.
Simon Nelson is founder and CEO of FutureLearn, a leading online learning platform.