Online IT Education

Male student at computerStudents take quickly to opportunities for interacting online - but universities need to have a more sophisticated offer. Photograph: Andy Doherty/Doherty Photography Ltd

Online learning is still seen as the poor relation in the UK – but it’s time for attitudes to change. As the student cap is lifted, and opportunities for expansion increase, online education offers a way for UK universities to compete internationally without struggling to meet capacity.

It’s a different story in the US. There, online degree courses have turned a corner. No more lurking in the shadows as the lesser option, the fallback. If it wants to make the most of those opportunities for expansion, the UK can learn some useful lessons from the US experience of learning to love online education.

The lifting of the student cap is one driver, but what will matter long-term is taking a decent share of the ballooning numbers of students globally looking for a world-class degree. The OECD estimates the numbers of people with degrees will grow from around 129 million to 204 million by 2020. It’s also one answer to the problem of declining numbers of part-time students and creating the right kind of higher study offer for people in work.

Latest figures from the Babson Survey Research Group suggest that 7.1 million higher education students in the US are taking at least one online course as part of their degree. There’s some wrangling over the figures, with the US education department’s first research into online study putting the total at more like 5.5 million. Forecasts suggest this will mean more than half of US students taking an online course by 2018.

Online tuition is moving into the mainstream

Perhaps more important than the numbers is the underlying sentiment. Talking to academic leaders, the Babson researchers found that those believing online courses provided the same or better learning outcomes had grown to 74%. Online degrees are no longer the preserve of the for-profit online operators, and three-quarters of all US universities and colleges now offer online degree options. The recent move from Stanford to turn Mooc (massive open online courses) offerings into paid-for courses is another indication of how online tuition is moving into the mainstream.

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