What is the future of online universities?

Online higher education has been growing since the 1980s, when the age of technology first enabled ideas about teaching and learning online to become a reality. The world’s first fully online university was created in Colorado, USA in 1993. Today there are many more fully online universities, but when we talk about online higher education, we must recognise that almost every university is now offering online learning in one form or another. Offering online programmes is not the same as being a fully online university. 

In the UK and globally, the Open University (OU) is generally regarded as a world leading provider of higher education delivered entirely at a distance to its students. Before technological advancements, the Open University was already delivering ‘distance learning’ to students, providing paper-based learning materials and study resources. Today there are many fully online universities outside of the UK. The National Centre for Education Statistics (NCES) report that there were 3,928 colleges and universities offering fully or primarily online programs in the U.S.A. as of 2020. But within the UK there has not been the growth in this market that we might have expected. The OU remains the UK market dominator in terms of being fully online. Its main competitor, Arden University, began by delivering distance learning but has moved into the blended learning space with its flexible delivery model for face-to-face teaching at multiple locations in the UK and Berlin. And if recent reports are to be believed, the OU is seeking to follow suit by establishing physical campuses as part of its plans. 

The Open University’s starting point was a desire to open access to higher education for those who might not be able to participate in traditionally delivered courses. Fitting in study around work and caring commitments, studying in flexible patterns one module at a time over longer periods, ‘pay as you go’ options, and working from wherever you are, without being tied to a geographical location – these were all regarded as crucial in driving forward agendas around widening participation to higher education to previously under-represented groups. 

This laudable mission and vision undoubtedly had the desired impact in terms of enabling participation; but what we saw emerge in response was arguably a kind of academic snobbery. There seemed to be an assumption, sometimes implied but sometimes explicitly stated, that distance or online degrees were not as good as degrees that were studied for in person, on campus.  It would be good to think that this did not emerge from the types of students that were originally attracted to the flexibility of distance learning, but sadly I think it might have done. This was not helped by the fact that some countries (e.g., Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) did not recognise online degrees, with in-person, on-campus attendance being an essential part of their criteria for acceptance. 

Paper planes against a purple background with a green plane leading the way

Tertiary Education Futures project

A ‘blue-skies’ thought experiment, informed by sectoral views to stimulate continued creative thinking about how post-school education might evolve over the next few decades.

In any case, during the Covid-19 pandemic, all universities were forced to increase their engagement with, and use of technology in their approaches to learning, teaching, and student support. The higher education sector began to realise just how difficult online learning and teaching are. The care and attention that must go in to designing for high quality digital-first teaching is significant and is not just about swapping a real classroom for Zoom. Quality online learning should be underpinned by a purposeful pedagogy that drives different teaching practices to those that are appropriate in face-to-face learning. 

These were things that as a sector we began to realise when we tried to move our traditional teaching online, and these are things that might have led us to a new-found respect for students who study online, for universities delivering online degrees, and for the value of those degrees overall. 

To a certain extent perhaps there has been some change; for example, as of just July 2023 the UAE Ministry of Education has begun to recognise online degrees in certain disciplines. In general, though, what we are seeing in the UK is a return to pre-Covid perceptions of online degrees as having less value; but crucially, not if they are offered by universities with a pre-existing reputation for traditional face-to-face learning and teaching

In other words, if a university is well-regarded for its high-quality traditional education, there is an assumption that their online programmes must also be good. This is a flawed assumption. If we have learned anything from the pandemic, it should be that just because in-person teaching is great doesn’t mean that online teaching will be great. I suspect that there is some cognitive dissonance here. Whilst we might have been scathing about the value of online degrees in the past, no self-respecting university can move forward now without an online portfolio. 

We have observed a reluctance on the part of students to return wholesale to face-to-face learning. Pictures posted on social media of empty classrooms have been shared widely, and the pain of lonely academics teaching to just one or two students, is acknowledged. Today’s commuter students, with their busy lives and part-time jobs, along with adult students with family and caring commitments, have grown to love the way in which they can organise their lives around their classes. Of course, there have been elements of face-to-face study that learners have missed, particularly around belonging, community, and social interaction. If universities are to respond to the changing needs and expectations of flexibility that today’s students have, online learning must be front-and-centre in their plans.

The sector needs to find a way now to acknowledge that online degrees are of equal value, without undermining its previously held position that they are less good. And the way to do this is to look at the individual provider, and not at the mode of delivery. So, the future for fully online universities?  Challenging. But the future for online degrees overall? Very bright. As the space becomes more and more crowded, it will be fascinating to watch how individual providers begin to compete. The areas that prospective online students are likely to be most focused on will be price, cutting-edge technology, opportunities for social engagement and peer learning, 24/7 wrap-around support, the balance between synchronous and asynchronous components, and stackable credentials. Watch this online space!

Professor Victoria L. O’Donnell is Deputy Provost, Pro Vice Chancellor Academic at Arden University

This article is part of the Tertiary Education Futures project.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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