Online technology will open up global engagement in HE

Online learning as a phenomenon must evolve into an accepted form, entrenched as a culture rather than a separate entity within institutions, as there is little point in denying the increasingly significant role it will play in delivering higher education.

This was the nub that emerged from the webinar “Embracing Technology for Global Engagement: A leadership challenge and opportunity” hosted by University World News in partnership with DrEducation last week. The online discussion attracted nearly 700 registrations. A recorded version of the webinar is available here.

Under discussion was the extent to which online education and internationalisation have risen as strategic priorities for many university leaders globally. While online experiments like massive open online courses, or MOOCs, badging and blended learning are still in early evolutionary stages, several institutions have undertaken pioneering approaches to finding synergies between technological innovations and their applications to global engagement strategies.

However, there are challenges facing the expansion of this type of educational proposition relating to cost, quality, recognition and outcomes. Hence, university leaders have to examine how best to leverage technology to advance the internationalisation of higher education and determine how that technology can fit into the overall global engagement strategy.

Professor GianMario Besana, associate provost for global engagement and online learning at Chicago-based DePaul University, said the strategic issue leading to the institution’s action around online learning is realising it has to become “the new norm”. It is within that context that the university is investing resources into promoting and delivering education into this space, specifically as the value and credibility of online learning needs to be better recognised within the United States.

He said the key to success will be solidly developing the infrastructure, since without having faculty on board, the concept will be stillborn.

Dr Rahul Choudaha, CEO and principal researcher of DrEducation, a global higher education research and consulting firm, who was the webinar’s moderator, said it was an important strategic choice for institutions whether to consider online as a separate, specialised track of education or as an amalgamated entity with traditional on-campus programmes.

There are many regulatory complexities related to recognition of credentials which makes it more difficult to offer foreign online degrees in emerging markets like India, Nigeria and China. At the same time, there is a promising future and unmet demand for delivering foreign credentials through online and blended-learning formats, he said.

He cited the example of edX whereby several universities are collaborating to provide an online 'MicroMasters' with students taking courses from a variety of sources around the world. Credits are transferred into the online programme as a revolutionary approach to delivering online learning globally.

“New players are becoming increasingly proactive in their models for online higher education in terms of delivering to the international markets,” he said.

Choudaha named a Harvard University study into online degrees that shows these degree programmes can tap into a significantly larger market currently not yet being served. Proof was in the Georgia Institute of Technology's online masters programme in computer science that had more than 2,200 students in Spring 2015 for its online qualification – of whom 18% are based outside the US.

Shifting landscape

“This trend implies university leaders must make sense of the shifting landscape of online higher education and adapt to the future where a degree may comprise a combination of courses from multiple institutions,” he said.

His comments were echoed among the webinar audience when 68% responded “likely” or “highly likely” to the poll question, based on MIT’s Future of Education report, whether by 2020 “degrees will be disaggregated into smaller credential units… with the possibility that the credentialing entity may be different from the institution that offers the course”. It was a glimpse into the potential future for higher education and learning.

Professor Kevin Kinser, department head of education policy studies at Pennsylvania State University in the US, said the Penn State World Campus, or 'Penn State Online', was launched in 1998 and had grown out of the university’s distinguished history in distance education that itself has its roots in 1892.

Having been among the first public institutions to embrace online learning, Kinser said that while scepticism for online degrees in the US has decreased, there still remains a widespread challenge of quality and prestige of these degrees around the world. Still, there is a natural synergy between technology and internationalisation that should be explored.

There are also significant opportunities in using technology to offer different programmes to those that are either offered elsewhere in the world or to those offered among the campus courses. This approach will transform educational products and encourage universities to rethink and restructure their financing models.

Professor Helen O’Sullivan, associate pro-vice-chancellor for online learning at the University of Liverpool, UK, said the institution’s vision embraces being globally connected as a knowledge leader. Inherent in that concept is ensuring global activities are at the centre of the institution’s focus.

Strategically the University of Liverpool has a wide range of international activities with two central initiatives; the first a partnership with Xi’an Jiaotong University that has forged the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University as an independent university based in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China and the second the Liverpool Online initiative.

The latter is a partnership with Laureate Online Education to deliver wholly online postgraduate programmes to working professionals across the globe. There are currently 10,000 students in 150 countries registered for postgraduate courses via Liverpool Online.

O’Sullivan said the model allows the university to deliver high-quality education at scale as Laureate provides the infrastructure, marketing, financial support and operational expertise while the University of Liverpool contributes the academic vision, programmes and quality assurance.

“The academics are involved in the delivery of these programmes, making the initiative a good example of a working partnership between online and virtual [educational providers],” she said.

However, the majority of webinar participants did not believe universities are effectively using technology to provide and promote higher education. Seventy-four percent indicated “disagree” or “strongly disagree” to the statement: “Higher education institutions are effectively using the potential of technology for global engagement.”

Divided opinion

When asked how likely it is that their institutions will be delivering degrees for international students via technology and online courses within three years’ time, the results were more divided. Thirty-seven percent responded it was “unlikely” or “highly unlikely” while 45% indicated “likely” or “very likely”.

Another 18% indicated they could not say whether or not that would happen.

O’Sullivan said a key element online students have bemoaned as missing in their university experiences is interaction with other students. Until recently this has been difficult – if not virtually impossible – to achieve, but Liverpool Online is now using technology to promote social interaction among students.

She added that there is a possibility that the university will incorporate a growing segment of its courses, specifically those designed for students studying within the country, as face-to-face interactions to build networking opportunities and interactions between students and teachers, students and students, and teachers and teachers.

“Online students value the opportunity for becoming part of a global network of like-minded professionals,” she said.

Besana said the speed with which technology is shifting is boosting the ability of online students and teachers to interact and the ability to syndicate programmes and offerings.

Globally, even conservative markets like Saudi Arabia are opening up to online learning, potentially bringing to the fore commercial opportunities for moving into those markets with programmes specifically geared to meet their needs.

A third possibility is developing programmes tapping into the corporate market demands.

“However, the overriding challenge to online higher education is dealing with the perception that this type of learning is secondary to the traditional approach – and one solution may be having to incorporate face-to-face components to balance the prejudice,” Besana concluded.

To listen to a recording of the debate, click on this link.