While distance education has existed for centuries, previously via mail order lessons and correspondence courses, rapid advances in digital interaction ushered in by the internet have vastly expanded its capacity and accessibility. The phenomenon of free online education has certainly stirred up debate within the industry, with an estimated 20 million students in over 200 countries having already enrolled in at least one MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). The dizzying pace of delivery model evolution has met with no shortage of skepticism, but this new face of distance education is nothing if not a catalyst for reform, research and innovation. A majority of higher education institutions are now making online learning a crucial element of long-term strategy.

Benefits of distance education include:

Expanded equality of access to prospective students who would be otherwise limited by cost, location or time constraints

Flexible scheduling permits continuous training that works around other responsibilities and commitments

Content quality can be enhanced by interactive, easily accessible materials

Alleviation of institutional capacity constraints

Online courses serve nontraditional students seeking flexibility, individualization and a greater selection of specific training options. They may include video lectures along with online forums, assignments and assessment tools. MOOCs have been celebrated for bringing academic access, empowerment and community building to the masses, but some would suggest that these benefits mirror online distance learning in general and more accurately represent the victory of packaging over content. Perhaps inherently, there is little standardization in what constitutes a MOOC, with instruction methods ranging from traditional static lectures to more innovative experiments in engagement. Students have a wide variety of motivations for enrollment, and forums often evolve into a lively exchange of ideas and social networking.

Successful MOOCs break up lessons with quizzes and problem solving that must be completed before students can progress. With over 90 percent of sign-ups not finishing many MOOCs, retention is a concern. How can they offer interpersonal interaction and support on such a massive scale? Coursera sends motivational emails, congratulating students on work already completed to encourage perseverance, while some instructors upload weekly update videos or record audio comments on assignments rather than writing them. Blending online components with classroom projects and faculty interaction is likely to become more common in distance learning.

Are MOOCs an unprecedented marketing tool for universities?

Universities that have embraced the MOOC have gained student marketing visibility and a vast potential recruitment base for their other courses. This institutional acceptance and gradual development of more sustainable business models lends a reciprocal legitimacy to the open and distance learning concept. MOOCs challenge preconceived ideas of what represents the most effective method of education, questioning the core value and purpose of college training while encouraging innovative applications of emerging technologies. The platform is an excellent opportunity to experiment with online teaching and assessment methods, and trying out new curricula and course contents to diversify future offerings.

While subjects such as medical training may not be as well suited to distance education because of the importance of hands-on learning, other competencies are better suited for MOOCs and may prepare students for other programs. Virginia Tech recently taught first year math through self-paced online courses with lower costs and better outcomes. While Udacity still focuses exclusively on technical courses and vocational training, new psychology and philosophy courses are among Coursera’s most popular. Assessment poses a challenge for humanities courses with essays and subjective written exams.

Distance education is a way for administrative stakeholders to provide a high quality education to a growing number of students despite limited resources. It provides a universal entry point to a university education, allowing anyone in the world with a computer and high-speed internet connection to pick and choose from specific courses increasingly offered by reputable institutions. It is also a new channel for universities to repackage and sell existing content.

Example: Two years ago UCLA’s Extension division partnered with for-profit company Empowered to migrate the university’s certificate programs to a specially built app available on the iPad. “Universities have all kinds of intellectual property that can be packaged and delivered by exploiting technology,” says Empowered chief executive Steven Poizner.

Unbundling university educations

In the United States, where nearly one third of students enrolled in higher education are taking at least one online course, colleges feel the push to investigate MOOCs for fear of being left behind if they don’t. Last year, MIT introduced MITx, partnering with edX to offer free online courses “for anyone, anywhere to earn certificates in distance coursework.” In the next few months, the prestigious university will launch XSeries Certificate programs for a series of online courses as part of its effort to “reimagine the building blocks” of education.

Certificate programs are being introduced to sell bite-sized slices of institutional content and prestige without diluting the value of their traditional degrees. Certificates are now more common than associate or master’s degrees, and have tripled in volume since 1994. Repackaging content into smaller bundles is seen as an economically sustainable way of delivering MOOCs, which have so far been offered free of charge. The question is whether offering single courses will unlock new sustainable revenue streams or cripple the industry, the way the music market has shifted from album sales to 99-cent iTunes singles to free downloads.

Disruption drives change

MOOC business models are in transition, caught between wanting to make access universal and needing to generate revenue. Earlier this year, Coursera, whose partners include Stanford, Princeton and the University of Michigan, began charging up to $100 for an official certificate that verifies completion of one of its courses, and has already earned $1 million in revenue. Since open online learning generally replicates the format and workflow of established colleges, perhaps it isn’t surprising that results from a recent Coursera study revealed the majority of MOOC users were actually well educated men, filling gaps in training for career advancement.

In January, the Georgia Institute of Technology will be the first elite school to offer a master’s degree in computer science through the Udacity MOOC for less than a sixth of the on-campus cost. The school is banking on proportionally greater enrollment from offering a reduced cost, and AT&T is set to donate $2 million to the test run, using the program to train employees and source potential hires. Nobody knows if such a program would cannibalize campus enrollment but the leap to full-credit degree programs using MOOC computer platforms and course assistants could bring real change to higher education.

The future of online university education

Much has been made of increasing student mobility, particularly in terms of international student recruitment. While students are travelling more to foreign countries to study, the borderless worldwide web is increasingly able to bring ideas to people, wherever they may be. With no geographic barriers or visa issues, your school is able to reach students throughout the world. In markets such as India, where online learners constitute over 20 percent of its total university enrollment, there is great potential for providing international online education, as MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Cornell have already done.

Canada lacks a national approach to online education strategy, such as Australia’s Open2Study and the UK’s FutureLearn. Implementing such a vision would bring challenges in system adaptability and differentiation, credit transfer and credential recognition between schools, but creating a coordinated system reduces redundancies and provides a more seamless, intuitive online education process for lifelong learning. Institutions can look to develop government, university or private partnerships to bridge learning gaps in their offerings, increase the transfer of knowledge and promote economic growth. Canada’s internationally recognized open university, Athabasca, could be leveraged to support distance education expertise.

Challenges to online education development

Online distance education promises to be a transformative influence on universities but it remains to be seen how smooth that transition will be. Questions linger regarding how an institution’s MOOC extension influences its core brand perception, what type of student MOOCs attract, and what value employers will place on online certificates compared to traditional degrees. While the proliferation of online education is understandably seen as a threat in many higher education circles, forward-thinking institutions that have aligned online initiatives with their overall content strategy and development are already deriving benefits from the emerging technology.

What has been your school’s experience with online distance learning?

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