The online revolution

Education has never been more accessible, but where does that leave third-level institutions?

Tue, Feb 18, 2014, 02:00

Here’s some food for thought. The largest education provider in Africa is based in the west of Ireland. With three million learners and a further 200,000 joining every month, Galway-based Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online (Alison) is heading up a quiet revolution in education.

Offering 600 free online courses, Alison is shaking things up. Suddenly education is accessible to anyone with internet access. It is a mass and comprehensive democratisation of education and training. The courses help people develop workplace skills and are available to diploma level.

These free courses are known as Moocs (Massive Online Open Courses). Alison has been providing Moocs since 2007, before the term was even coined.

In the past few years, other major players have been getting in on the act, granted with a different audience in mind. Coursera, a Mooc provider with investor backing of $85 million (€62m) provides free online, interactive courses from some of the world’s best-known universities. Students can sign up to take courses in Roman architecture from Yale, for example, or calculus from the University of Pennsylvania. EdX is another offering, from MIT, Harvard, Berkeley and the University of Texas.

But are universities running themselves out of business or simply using Moocs as a clever marketing tool? Many argue that while material can be made available, the true value of a qualification comes from assessment, interaction and accreditation.

Huge strides are being made in this area. Coursera uses information gathered from its students to better understand how people learn and to tailor programmes. There is research on how best to assess students effectively and creditably. Technology such as keystroke biometrics and iris recognition is used to ensure students are doing the work themselves. It is possible to sit supervised examinations via webcam. Recently, the American Council on Education recommended five Coursera courses to their institutions for college credit.

Progress has been incredibly rapid. Coursera has been around for less than two years. Existing educational institutions will need to move quickly to carve out a place in the new order. In the US, colleges are rushing to join various start-ups to get a foothold in the Mooc revolution.

Brian Mulligan of IT Sligo’s Centre for Online Learning, which ran one of Ireland’s first institution-affiliated Moocs last year, sees huge potential in these developments. “It’s changing everything. There are whole courses available online. If I want to be a computer programmer, I can learn how for absolutely nothing. Being examined will cost me money but every other aspect is free. There is a point at which parents and students are going to twig this.”

“I can see third-level education retreating back into the higher level of provision,” says Mike Feerick, CEO and founder of Alison. “I think that the lower level training and education [certs and diplomas] will be supplanted entirely by online education. A tremendous amount of fact-based learning can be provided online for free.”

There are drawbacks. Critics argue online learning, particularly Moocs with their pre-set curricula and assembly line approach, can never substitute for the subtlety and added complexity of teacher-student interaction. With lecturers struggling to educate hundreds on campus, can a quality education really be delivered to thousands? Also, many students are simply not motivated enough to complete online education under their own steam. Many need the structure and framework of an on-campus environment. For young undergraduates, in particular, everyone seems to agree that at most, the online and campus experiences should complement one another in a blended approach.

Others point to the low completion rates in contrast to the enormous numbers that sign up. Research indicates, however, that students who do complete Moocs do as well, if not better than students in a face-to-face environment. But meaningful assessment of humanities subjects, for example, would be difficult at a low cost. Regardless of any drawbacks however, it appears the Mooc revolution is here to stay.

Fees for online courses
But Moocs are not the only story in the future of third level. All parts of education are moving online. Both Sligo IT and DCU are acknowledged as Irish leaders in fee-based online courses. It’s a matter of progress rather than cost savings. Indeed, the cost of providing high-quality degree and postgraduate courses online is, according to Séamus Fox, director of DCU’s Oscail online education, as expensive as providing the course face to face. “Of course if you reach a certain number of students, economies of scale can be achieved, but providing quality is costly,” Fox says.

The process of quality assurance and control is very demanding in an online course because it has to be, Fox claims. “You need to be very systematic about ensuring that students are engaging with the course material,” he says. “Students are also very astute and they take a consumer approach to their education which is a good thing from our perspective.”

The flexibility of online learning is a key factor for adult learners in particular, according to Dr Seán Rowland, president of Hibernia College, a fully accredited e-learning college, best known for its online graduate teacher-training. Being able to stay in your job, not having to move to be near a campus, not having the accommodation, travel and other costs associated with campus-based study will mean, Rowland believes, that most postgraduate study will move online in the next few years.

“Why shouldn’t students be able to take a year of their course online if they need to take a job?” he says. “What if a student wants to do a history module in NUI Galway instead of the one in their own college? I don’t think this idea of an institution rigidly guarding its courses will continue.”

Campus development
There are key issues for third-level institutions in light of the rapid development of online learning. People seem to agree that while undergraduate degree study will most likely continue to be campus-based for the most part, all other areas are increasingly likely to move online.

The investment in on-campus accommodation, car-parking and restaurant facilities that were developed partially to provide cash-strapped institutions with additional income streams, may turn out to have been a bad move as students become less attached to the college campus.

“Can we really expect the taxpayer to continue funding third-level institutions and huge campuses with all these costs and expenses?” asks Rowland. “It’s nobody’s fault, it’s a legacy issue, but we have to examine whether colleges need to be in the business of housing and food provision. We need to take a hard look at the mechanics of delivery at third-level.”

Feerick is also of the opinion that third-level institutions have taken their eye off the academic ball in favour of building projects. He believes that salvation for the universities lies in developing very specialised areas of expertise, something akin to the Bernal Project in the University of Limerick where 10 professorships in specific niche areas of strategic priority have been created. “It will be important for the institutes of technology to align themselves with other third-level institutions in order to remain relevant,” he says.

Educational institutions are working on enhancing their capacity for online and blended provision. DCU, for example, has launched its National Institute for Digital Learning to build on its existing course provision and develop new online and blended programmes. It will also conduct research into digital learning, according to Fox.

Meanwhile the Higher Education Authority (HEA) is developing a national digital learning platform as part of the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning. “It is important to have a national approach,” says HEA chief executive Tom Boland. “That’s important rather than each institution doing its own thing. The key benefit for students and institutions will be in a blended form of learning.”

There are also potentially exciting projects on the horizon such as which aims to allow students design their own Master of Arts in creative process degree. Students would choose modules from a range of institutions including Queen’s University Belfast, the Open University, TCD and NUI Maynooth. Essentially, students will no longer be confined to a single course or institution.

It could well be that online technology will be fantastic for education and accessibility, but it could be a bad thing for third-level institutions in their current form. In a consumer-led market, the best courses and modules will be in great demand while anything mediocre will fade away. Increased accessibility puts quality firmly at centre stage.

“Parents and students are better informed and they are becoming pushier,” Feerick says. “Nearly 10 million children in the US are home-schooled. People are looking at university courses and wondering whether there are better and cheaper options available online. Will this sort of thinking take 20 years to catch on over here? I don’t think so.”

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