In this post, I want to take a step back and look at the motivation behind online learning – not from an individual perspective but from the perspective of institutions and society as a whole. The question is: what do we hope to achieve for our organisations and for society by offering online learning? For this post, I’ll be looking at some of the recent reports to get a sense of the current debate.
Reputation and competition
A chapter on universities as global players in the recent UNESCO Science Report – Towards 2030 gives some first clues. It argues that universities have become global players whose reputation is established on a global level. They compete for funds, the best staff, and students globally. Online courses are ‘giving world-class universities an even greater global presence’ (p. 3). Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the chapter argues, are offered to increase visibility and reputation. It is safe to say that online education has become a stable part of the strategic development of universities. For example, Babson’s 2016 Online Report Card finds that more than 60% of higher-education institutions in the US regard online education as ‘critical to their long-term strategy’ (p. 21).
Global competition is one side of the coin of a globalised world. The other side is global cooperation. It is easy to see how large-scale research projects demand that institutions work together. Translated into the world of online learning, the above mentioned chapter from the recent UNESCO Science Report also predicts that ‘the partnering of universities to co-produce, re-appropriate, integrate, blend and certify classes will happen across the world’ (p. 5).
One of the biggest hopes associated with online tools and online education is that they will bridge the digital divide and give equal access to free and quality education, in line with the sustainable development goals. The 2015 Global Information Technology Report, published by the World Economic Forum, highlights that information and communication technologies (ICTs) ‘create economic opportunities and foster social and political inclusion, ultimately contributing to shared prosperity’ (p. xv). A recent report of the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network shows how ICT can contribute to achieving the sustainable development goals. In terms of education, especially secondary education, the report argues that online learning can allow students access to quality teaching in places where no qualified teachers are available.
Creating a global community of practice
When we shift our focus from the learning content and towards the social interaction aspects of learning, we can see that online courses are uniquely positioned to build a global community of practice. Specialised online courses bring together practitioners from all around the world. In addition to offering new information and insights, these courses allow for building communities around specialised topics and key concerns. A good example is DiploFoundation’s Internet Governance Community, which is not exclusive to former online course participants but builds on their strong presence and sense of community. (Although not a recent report, this blog post on the role of communities of practice in a digital age is a good place to start).
The 2014-2016 Docebo report on E-Learning Market Trends & Forecast shows how organisations benefit from offering e-learning to their employees. The report argues that online learning saves training costs for organisations but more importantly, online learning is an efficient way of passing on new knowledge and skills when employees are posted in far-away locations. Further, fast-moving markets and knowledge-based work requires continuous training. Online education can become part of career advancement and continuous professional development.
A number of recent reports present evidence that online learning can lead to better learning outcomes. For example, the final report of MIT’s Online Education Policy Initiative shows that especially blended learning, a mix of personal and online interaction, has advantages over face-to-face instruction. Online learning allows for continuous feedback, breaking down learning units into smaller chunks, tailoring tasks and activities to the current level of participants, and adjusting difficulty levels.
When we talk about education, arguably the most important aspect is learning and the benefits – social and economic, individual as well as societal – education generates. This, however, is also the part where things get trickier. Initially, the hype generated by MOOCs created a buzz that made it easy to push away some of the harder questions of online education such as learning methodology, learning outcomes, and equal access. We now need to start asking how we can actively level the playing field between rich and poor, ensure equal access for persons with special needs and disabilities, and use online learning technology not for its own sake but the benefits of learners.
Let us know why you engage in online learning, or why you think it is important for organisations and society as a whole in the comments below. More: Geneva Internet Platform’s Digital Watch observatory, operated by DiploFoundation, offers a useful collection of resources on online education, the digital divide, and capacity development.