The quality of online higher education must be assured

Children today are part of a digital generation that has grown up in a world surrounded by technology and the internet. Digitalisation, artificial intelligence, wireless technologies, autonomous vehicles and 3D printing are all increasingly part of everyday life. Nearly all households have invested in at least one computer in the home.

With the advent of the internet, the prospect of offering interactive educational online experiences started to be explored and, by the 1980s, the earliest virtual learning environments started to emerge. Moving forward to now, enrolments in online courses continue to grow by around 35% per annum as more and more higher education institutions deliver online degrees.

Industry and business also see the value in using online learning for training purposes and the online corporate market is experiencing healthy growth, which is expected to continue to grow by about 15% per year. Constant re-training and upskilling is essential in today’s competitive marketplace.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges associated with online education is assuring parents, employers and students that the quality of what learners receive is just as good as that delivered in face-to-face mode. That challenge of course, is often compounded by the quality of what is actually offered and the ad hoc nature in which online education companies have sprung up.

What some of them are producing is very questionable and this affects more broadly how online learning is perceived.

While the stigma that was attached to online education in some countries and by some employers has almost disappeared and it is now largely accepted as being as credible as traditional face-to-face delivered degrees, there are still pockets of scepticism about the use of technologies in learning and the absence of a campus experience.

Earlier adopters such as Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom generally tend to view online degrees as being as good as those delivered face-to-face and thousands of students in those countries study online from undergraduate up to doctoral level. The trend universities in those locations are seeing is that more and more students are taking at least one course via online mode.

Today’s reality is that students have to work to support themselves through university and the flexibility and convenience online offers is a huge bonus.

Education for all

Online learning options have made education more accessible and have gone some way to helping achieve the goal of ‘education for all’. Students can study from (almost) anywhere, at times that suit them and at their own pace. It also provides an amazing, sometimes overlooked opportunity of connecting students from different countries and cultures.

Still, it is important to acknowledge that learning via online delivery is not necessarily for everyone – some students are better suited to face-to-face. Online demands, inter alia, student autonomy, self-direction and good time management.

Some students need the social, physical interaction with other students and with instructors. In the online learning environment, the teacher and learner are separated and how this is treated drives the success or failure of online learning.

There are many stakeholders in the online learning environment. These include the institutions that offer online education, the staff who teach the courses, the students enrolled in online study, the parents paying their child’s fees, the prospective employers of graduates from online courses, the ministry or government and the broader society.

First and foremost, all these stakeholders want the online courses to meet certain standards, be quality assured and accredited and so be recognised nationally and internationally. It means having in place a supportive governmental policy environment.

Institutions that deliver online should have clearly spelt out quality assurance mechanisms in place for staff and students and make sure these are implemented. Staff who develop and deliver online must be appropriately qualified and supported professionally. Adequate resourcing and investment in technology that works must be available.

Lastly and just as importantly, there must be a guarantee that learners have access to support right through their learning journey, from admission up to graduation. The key is to develop ways for online students to feel as if they belong, they are connected, they can develop relationships – even if they are virtual.

To support this, instructors need to proactively engage with students, get to know them and maintain contact throughout their study, as well as incorporate methods to motivate and encourage them and foster student to student contact also. Unresponsive instructors are a significant factor in students not continuing with their online studies.

An interconnected support scheme

The whole process can be summed up as an interconnected support scheme where the students do the learning, the instructor provides the learning materials and supports the students’ learning process, the higher education institution makes available the infrastructure and systems for the instructors delivering the courses to the students and the ministry authority or government that oversees the accreditation of academic programmes provides an appropriate policy environment for all stakeholders engaged in online education.

Technology has brought great advantages to the online teaching-learning environment. It has changed how we do teaching and learning and opened up the world of learning and opportunity to those who would not have had such opportunity without it.

However, for online education to be successful there has to be commitment and support by governments, institutions, academics and learners. An absolute necessity is providing quality education. That means well-resourced institutions, well-qualified and motivated staff, good and continuous quality assurance mechanisms and supportive leadership.

Nita Temmerman (PhD) is a former university pro vice-chancellor (academic) and executive dean of the faculty of education at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. She is currently visiting professor to Ho Chi Minh City Open University and Papua New Guinea University of Technology, academic reviewer at the University of Queensland, Australia, as well as invited specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications, invited external reviewer with Oman Academic Accreditation Authority, and a published author.