Online Higher Education

There are multiple hurdles to be overcome in order for society to fully embrace the concept of online higher education. There is natural resistance to the concept because in many people’s minds there are significant questions that are unanswered. How will students be assessed? Who will be admitted? How can we be sure that students are honest? Will online degrees be of the same quality of the traditional degrees? How will top universities react to this trend? Time will eventually answer these and other questions regarding online education. What is certain is that demand for online education is beginning to boom and traditional universities will have to develop their own propositions or miss out on the opportunity to maintain their leadership in the education and development arena.

Universities and Society have much at stake when it comes to higher education. Enabled by the technological developments in communications, IT and networking, societies around the world are becoming ever more dynamic and competitive. Expectation for timescales are constantly being reduced and demand for immediacy in most areas drives many changes in our world today. As these changes happen, and as society begins to embrace these new technologies to satisfy traditional demand for goods and services, it is important that educational institutions develop the ability and systems to keep up.

Online education should be one of the most viable applications of the web. Only the appropriate systems, accreditations and assessments would need to be developed in order to achieve the quality standards that the traditional universities are renowned for. However, traditional universities tend to be conservative in their approach; they have lagged behind other for-profit organizations like the University of Phoenix that currently captures over $300 million in annual revenue. It is this type of organizations that has taken the lead in delivering online education, in spite of its questionable academic rigor and accreditation.

Demand is growing for education amongst many people that traditionally had little access to higher education. The “Baby Boomer” generation has been a big market driver for online education. Also the upcoming generations of young people see online delivery of products and services as something natural, so online education for them does not seem alien.

So far, online education has been steadily growing at rates that most studies show at 30 or 40 percent, which is 15 to 20 times faster than traditional university education growth.

Trends in Online Offerings
The uptake of more traditional degrees like BA/BS in Arts and Sciences has been less than enthusiastic. The reason for this is that most of the students willing to undertake a BA or BS level degree will probably be of an age more suitable for traditional education, and this lack of demand reflects the lack of offerings in this area. Another issue to be considered has to do with the practicalities of coordinating the different disciplines and departments required for these courses, which are difficult enough off-line. Successful online propositions for these courses will have to be extremely committed to resolving these issues and have the support of what could be considered the most tradition-bound faculty.

Admission Criteria
Universities will have to address the stigma that often accompanies admission opportunities for individuals. The online experience allows non-traditional students to learn at different paces and have different background than what it would be required for a classroom lecture. The web provides an exceptional opportunity to deliver higher education to all qualified students opening up an untapped market of intelligent people that do not have the access through the normal admission channels.

Name and Reputation
In a survey delivered to HR professionals, more than 50% preferred selecting a candidate with an online degree from a traditional institution over one with a degree from a less reputable school. Current data suggests that the real explosion in demand and market growth will occur once top name universities start supplying online education opportunities. These institutions have a trust factor built into their brand names that new coming institutions lack. The latter universities and online education propositions do not have a recognized expertise of having educated millions of students. Their programs can be perceived as lacking academic rigor and taught by faculty of questionable accreditation.

Some experts argue that name and reputation are even more important than the medium of delivery. Universities that wish to maintain their reputation will have to make sure that the standards that apply for normal students are also applied to online students, to the extent that the final result is undistinguishable. This is a significant challenge and there is still debate around this issue. One can question if the online proposition can really deliver the same results as the traditional approach does.

The requirement for quality and the backing of the name of a reputable university create new challenges for online education providers. These institutions that can provide high quality online education will need to implement methods to achieve a consistency between the online proposition and the traditional one.

Accreditation and Certification
The new paradigm creates great opportunities for both educators and learners in terms of accessibility, flexibility, and in some cases, cost. However, it also creates significant challenges for quality assurance and accreditation. A survey amongst online learners revealed that 44 percent value quality and accreditation when choosing an online education provider. Another 22 percent deemed rich student experience as paramount importance. Interestingly most people do not know what “accreditation” really is. Different accreditation agencies like the AACSB offer membership and also accreditation status. Membership is open to all institutions and sometimes this is illegitimately “confused” with accreditation. Accrediting bodies have the challenge to educate about their standards to the different involved parties like government, corporations and the general public in order to minimize this confusion.

Online education is two-way and delivered via mentoring and direct assessment. This is why traditional classroom standards need to be modified to fit with the new delivery method and be consistent with the bidirectional approach online education delivers. Once accreditation agencies develop credible methodologies to certify online education courses, there would be strong incentives to improve the quality of the programs.

Learning Styles and Assessment
Without proper examinations and student assessments, there would be no way to certify that the learning outcomes have been properly delivered to the students. The online approach gives the exceptional opportunity to assess many different types of learning styles and motivation levels. The online experience allows setting up automatic diagnostic tools that would seamlessly reinforce weak areas until the student is deemed to be competent in the subjects. Taken to an extreme, the online delivery could integrate the learning and the examination simultaneously.

Interaction with Faculty and Fellow Students
Often students rate the possibility of interacting with peers or faculty as an important part of the learning experience. Universities must make sure that their online proposition encourages and facilitates student-student and student-faculty interaction in order to maximize the network benefit. There are no technological impediments for this too, as instant messaging and web cams are easily accessible. This issue places constraints in the sizes of the online student body if the university is to maintain its quality standards in the education delivery.