Adapt to online learning or become obsolete

To understand how online delivery affects transnational education, it is important to understand the impact that innovations in online delivery, and educational technology more widely, are currently having on the higher education sector. These impacts will be felt around the world and transnational education programmes need to adapt to the changing environment to remain competitive.

One of the most high profile examples of innovation in educational technology is the recent emergence of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Many people have come to regard the development of MOOCs as the ‘Napster moment’ for higher education, fundamentally altering the mode of delivery of higher education and opening up access to high quality content across the globe.

While the disruptive impact of MOOCs is widely acknowledged, opinions differ as to what their lasting impact is likely to be on the sector. MOOCs certainly do expand access to higher education, but have been criticised for their low completion rates and the fact they fail to engage with struggling students.

However as flagged in the recent Open University Innovating Pedagogy 2013 research report, MOOCs have a powerful and unique role to play in bringing together other online pedagogical innovations such as ‘badging’, mobile learning and learning analytics.

In this sense they’re acting as incubators for innovation on a number of levels, driving change through the development of pedagogies and delivery models. In doing this, MOOCs are legitimising online delivery as a method of instruction. As these technologies and pedagogies develop further, more elements of online learning will be integrated into traditional higher education programmes and courses.

As these changes are being played out online, they are being played out on an international stage and will therefore impact on higher education structures and pedagogies around the world.

Transnational education

So what does this mean for transnational education?
These innovations in online delivery give institutions a set of tools to develop more effective solutions to the challenges and opportunities of the international higher education market.

Online delivery can meet these challenges by removing some of the greatest barriers for international students looking to access UK higher education. Online delivery allows institutions to reach students who want to study in their home countries, but want to study for UK higher education qualifications, alongside UK students.

The inherent flexibility of online delivery means students can work and study at the same time, making degrees more affordable and more manageable for a greater range of students.

The model of online delivery can also support larger cohorts of students and can quickly integrate new technology into delivery, resulting in student-centred learning that utilises pioneering pedagogies that can be delivered at scale.

Online degree programmes are also beneficial for students studying back in the UK, who are able to interact with peers from across the globe. At the Open University we have 10,000 international students from 128 different countries studying alongside UK students on distance learning courses.

This plurality of perspectives enriches the learning experience for everyone and enables institutions to better internationalise their curriculum, which is an important consideration in an increasingly globalised knowledge economy.

In developing transnational distance learning programmes, institutions can also benefit from integrating MOOCs and other types of open educational resources, or OERs, into their delivery models.

Alternative pathways

One of the key benefits of MOOCs and OERs is that they offer alternative informal pathways into higher education that can help overcome the barriers that many students face.

These resources are international in scope; the MOOC platform Futurelearn, as well as partnering with international universities, has attracted visitors from over 190 countries since it launched courses on 18 September this year, and 90% of the 64 million downloads of Open University courses from iTunes U have been from outside the UK.

We have also seen that students who use these kinds of resources do go on to pursue formal education. To date over 1,500 Open University students started their journey on OpenLearn, our online platform for free educational resources.

By developing these kinds of pathways from informal to formal learning, institutions can help international students to build the foundational knowledge that will enable them to progress to formal education qualifications.

It also helps institutions to build their brand overseas with a wide range of potential students and introduce them to the perhaps unfamiliar concept of online study through accessible and engaging resources.

Global, but differentiated

While this is an exciting opportunity, it is crucial to bear in mind that online delivery is not a ‘one-size fits all’ solution. The marketplace for higher education may be global, but it is still differentiated.

Different countries and different groups of students within countries will find online delivery of higher education more or less attractive. A key challenge for institutions is to differentiate between these groups of students, understand their needs and articulate to them how online education can meet those needs.

Integrating technology and innovative pedagogies into online delivery will be essential to achieving this, as these developments can enable delivery to be structured around the needs of the student. Technological innovations can offer students flexibility to access content wherever and whenever they need to and can connect them to a global network of classmates who interact through the social architecture of online study programmes.

Finding ways of communicating these benefits to disparate groups of students is challenging, but it is a challenge that institutions need to address. Online learning is not a passing phase, it is a key step in the development of the higher education industry, and institutions that do not act now to integrate online innovations into their study programmes will struggle to thrive.

Trying to retrofit technology into programmes further down the line will not work; instead institutions need to understand how they can embrace change now to remain competitive. The higher education environment is changing and institutions that cannot adapt to this will not survive.

* Lal Tawney is a director at The Open University Worldwide with the responsibility for growing the number of international students on behalf of the university. To support the university’s international ambitions, Tawney led the successful setup and launch earlier this year of the university’s new website for prospective international students, a dedicated contact centre and marketing campaigns across different countries.