The unfulfilled promise of online higher education

Decades after the first stirrings of online learning were felt in higher education, the revolution its advocates had foretold has yet to occur.

Yet its advent seemed to promise so much. As Richard Garrett writes in a new report, champions of the internet thought it could “transform educational access, quality and cost”.

But then, as Garrett also notes, the crash that followed the bubble saw the initial exuberance of investors, governments, the media and colleges and universities collapse into disappointment.

Inside the faculties, academics were already worried about the effects of commercialisation in the online world, the diminution of student learning, and even the threat to their jobs.

Since 2000, however, online higher education has continued to grow and evolve although, as Garret says, things “have proven far more complicated than either the boosters or detractors anticipated”.

Garrett is director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a higher education think tank with institutional members across 30 countries.

In 2017, an Observatory team undertook a year-long series of national case studies on online higher education and selected 12 countries to investigate how they were using the electronic system of instruction.

The nations (or region in the case of Sub-Saharan Africa) ranged from China to Sub-Saharan Africa, England to Saudi Arabia and India to Spain. The aim was to “capture the current state-of-play, in terms of online enrolments, student characteristics, and their outcomes”.

But the investigators also wanted to find out how online learning was viewed by governments, institutions, students and employers, while also examining how it was regulated by national authorities.

In this latest report, Garrett notes that online learning has taken off in some countries much more than in others while also assuming different forms.

These range from fully online degrees offered by fully online universities, notably in the United States, to single online courses, as well as blends of online and conventional delivery, together with online study materials.

As he says, some institutions have embraced online learning as a core strategy, while others have taken a more ad hoc and ‘bottom-up’ approach. Yet many others remain on the sidelines.

“Governments, similarly, have either championed and encouraged their institutions to enter the online world, or ignored, failed to acknowledge, or curbed and even banned online learning.”

The United States, of course, stands out with the highest proportion of its students studying fully online.

With more than one in six of its higher education students learning via the web or other electronic means, the US ranks far above other nations with ratios as low as one in 100 in half the countries and regions studied.

America is also the only country examined where the online student ratio exceeds single digits. In a number of others, though, online enrolments are growing and often faster than enrolments overall.

The bare figures, however, may disguise how influential and invasive online learning has become, given that many if not most students in developed countries are taking some of their courses, or parts of subjects, online.

Blended learning

According to the Observatory research, this ‘blended learning’, with its combination of online and campus-based study, appeared more developed but was difficult to define and track. Few countries, in fact, report blended students in their official data.

The US, however, has reported students taking one or more online courses, short of fully online, since 2012. By 2016, 20% of all American higher education students were classified as ‘blended’.

The Observatory researchers found similar ratios in China, England and Malaysia. They argue that this was “the result of established online universities and online programming at conventional institutions”.

“In these countries, the line between fully online and blended programmes is often blurred. In others, the blended student ratio was in single digits, although often larger than the fully online ratio,” Garrett says.

In the lesser developed world, despite gains in internet access over the past two decades, Garrett says forms of online learning have “yet to play more than a marginal or supplementary role”.

Widespread access to broadband internet is a prerequisite for scaled online learning, he says. In all the countries surveyed, though, the growth of fixed broadband penetration has been dramatic; only in Egypt, India and Sub-Saharan Africa do fixed broadband rates remain negligible.

Another failure of early online enthusiasts to predict the future was in the notion that the technology would disrupt national higher education systems, prompting large virtual student flows across country borders.

“Champions foresaw in online learning a way to dramatically increase access to high-quality programming, addressing absolute capacity limitations in some countries and quality or cost restrictions in others,” Garrett says.

Again, reality proved rather different: While conventional international student flows have increased threefold since 2000 to almost five million, cross-border online learning has remained marginal.

In concluding his nearly 7,000-word paper, “Whatever happened to the promise of online learning? The state of global online higher education”, Garrett says that for many institutions and students, a blend of online and in-person study may be the best way forward.

“Blended learning means that online learning complements rather than competes with the traditional campus, supports learners, faculty and staff where they live (in urban areas at least), and affords creative combinations of individualised and group, online and in-person learning.”

*A book of country case studies on online distance learning is due to be published later this year: Open and Distance Education in Australia, Europe and the Americas: National perspectives in a digital age; edited by Adnan Qayyum and Olaf Zawacki-Richter (Springer).