Online learning is one of the fastest-growing industries in the modern world. University and college applications, on the other hand, continue to fall year after year. Between the attractiveness of being able to study what you like from anywhere in the world at a fraction of the cost of attending a physical campus, distance learning itself is more flexible and can react more quickly to industry changes, is more customizable, and allows students to study while employed full time.
Do we still need colleges and universities at all? And if so, how do they need to change if they want to remain relevant?
Advantages of traditional tertiary education
Before we examine the reasons behind the decline in college and university applications, it’s important to remember all the things a real-world college or university experience offers that a digital one just can’t compete with, at least yet. Aside from the chance to join societies and participate in sports programs, that ‘college culture’ still holds massive appeal for many school leavers.
It’s a place where the entrepreneurs and innovators of the future can meet, network, and form connections that are hard to replicate online. The relationship between Silicon Valley and Stanford and Berkeley Universities is a prime example.
Another big benefit of the traditional model is giving students access to facilities the online world can’t – such as laboratories and co-working spaces. In fields like chemistry, biology, and many other sciences, learning without these facilities is impossible. Perhaps in the future, this will be the main function of universities, while students live, participate in lectures, and learn from wherever they are off-campus.
College has simply become too expensive for most
The amount of student debt in the US alone is staggering and has quintupled since 2004. More than 40% of students with college loans are not able to make payments. Despite this, tuition fees continue to rise year on year at a rate greater than inflation. The system is not sustainable in its current form. Younger students have learned from their older peers and aren’t willing (or able) to take on massive debt for a qualification that may not even result in a decently-paying job. Given all this, it’s not surprising that the need for affordable education that delivers skills that are actually in demand in the workplace has resulted in such a boom for distance and online learning.
‘Real world’ learning
In a world where degrees for new positions like ‘marketing automation technician’ and ‘user experience designer’ simply don’t exist yet, online learning has a big advantage. Companies can pick and mix from a variety of different courses, rather than requiring their employees to have highly specific skill certifications. In hybrid roles and ‘new’ jobs, there’s little point in a student spending years acquiring knowledge that isn’t relevant for them simply to be able to list a degree on their resume. Engineering recruitment agencies, in particular, have seen the effects. In India, the lack of student demand has already resulted in the closure of 800 engineering colleges.
MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses
MOOCs are where universities and online learning platforms meet. Designed for multiple participants (Massive) and available to anyone (Open), they consist of video lectures, interactive content, and testing all rolled into one online package. Universities in Europe like Oxford, Munich, and Zurich and US universities like Harvard, Stanford, and Berkeley create the learning content, which is then coordinated on a MOOC platform like edX and Coursera – although there are hundreds of others, many of which allow users to create their courses.
This could become particularly useful for those ‘new’ jobs we mentioned earlier, as well as a potential source of income for experts in their field who want to pass on their experience and knowledge in a highly specialized niche area.
Just how ‘Massive’ are they?
The largest online course to date was FutureLearn’s Understanding IELTS: Techniques for English Language Tests exam preparation course offered in collaboration with the British Council. It registered a whopping 440,000 students in 2015. The world’s largest course provider is Coursera, which partners with over 160 different universities across the globe and had more than 28 million registered users in 2017.
The most important aspect, however, might be that these courses are generally offered for free, with the student only being charged should they wish to receive actual university credit or official certification.
In the digital age, this approach might be the best way for universities to remain relevant. Dr. Philip Hallam, Vice-Chancellor of Arden University, puts it succinctly:
“The established path to getting a degree can be prohibitively expensive and inflexible. We need to do it differently, with a combination of fully-supported online degrees plus courses that provide a mix of in-classroom and web learning.”