In a move to improve access to higher education, the University Grants Commission of India (UGC), set up by the Indian Union government for coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of higher education, has asked top institutions in the country to submit applications to offer courses online, including those leading to a degree, from the 2019-20 academic session with students required to show up only for exams at designated centres.

The UGC notification mandates that institutions can enrol Indian and foreign students and only those institutions in the top 100 ranks of the National Institutional Ranking Framework for the past two years and who are also accredited by National Assessment and Accreditation Council with minimum score of 3.26 on a 4-point scale are eligible to offer online courses. 

The UGC mandate comes in the background of intense debate on how effective online learning is and whether global online higher education will ever take off.

Twenty years ago, at the beginning of the dot.com bubble, it seemed as though the advent of the internet would quickly lead to the rise of unstoppable new global online education providers, able to enrol hundreds of thousands of students in courses led by the biggest names in each discipline. 

We saw another wave of hysteria around 2012 – the year of the MOOC or massive open online course – with more dire warnings that universities as we know them were on borrowed time.

According to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the state of online learning, the growth in online education takes two major forms. The first: for-credit courses where students enrolled in tertiary education take online classes offered by home or other higher education learning institutions for credit. Some well-known cases include the MIT OpenCourseWare and the Harvard Online learning.

The second form of online education consists of professional training and certification preparation. Such online learning is usually targeted at professionals or students seeking training or preparing for certification exams. Popular courses include training in foreign languages, accounting and nursing.

But what about the scale of fully-online provision?

When we look at cross-border education, the scale of fully online provision is still minuscule. There are around 150,000 students outside Australia enrolled in Australian qualifications: two-thirds in university programmes and the rest in vocational and upper secondary qualifications. 

Virtually all of the school and vocational education students, and more than 90% of those in higher education, are studying on a branch campus or with a local partner institution. And yet for decades we have seen predictions that students who cannot travel abroad to study, either due to cost or commitments at home, would seek out foreign study options online.

The same pattern is evident in UK transnational education. The world’s largest transnational provider, the University of London, has provided curricula and examinations for students studying around the world since 1858. 

The vast majority of its students enrol with a local teaching institution that provides facilities, tutorials and support services, as has been the case for over 150 years – even though independent study is much more engaging now with the availability of online platforms that have replaced the correspondence model. 

The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, or OBHE, founded in London to study disruptive innovations worldwide, during the Observatory’s Global Forum in London in December 2017, pondered the question ‘Whatever happened to the promise of global online learning?

Around the world the change in the number of students in online degrees is surprisingly variable. In Australia, numbers are growing steadily with 20% of domestic students studying in ‘external’ mode in 2016 – up from 15% 10 years earlier, according to recently released Department of Education and Training data.

In other countries though, such as the UK and South Korea, long-standing distance education providers and open universities are having it tough, according to the OBHE’s research.

Why don’t students enrol in foreign online degrees?

First, there remains a widespread prejudice against online learning (from students and governments) in many parts of the world, even though the quality of student experience is improving with better bandwidth and more engaging curriculum design. 

Many governments, including China, India and Vietnam, refuse point blank to recognise foreign degrees undertaken online, citing a range of concerns. They believe the quality of online study is inferior, legitimate providers are difficult to distinguish from online degree mills and they perceive online student fraud to be rife.

International students in Australia, too, are wary where there has been a push to remove a requirement in the National Code of Practice stipulating that international students must take at least 75% of their studies in on-campus mode. 

The biggest opposition to this came from international student organisations who were concerned that students could be forced to study in what they perceived as inferior online versions of courses by institutions charging high fees but wanting to cut costs. 

The compromise amendment requires that “a registered provider must not deliver more than one-third of the units (or equivalent) of a higher education or vocational education and training course by online or distance learning to an overseas student”.

Second, the reputation of online providers doesn’t travel as far as you might imagine. Two dynamic online providers who presented at the OBHE’s Global Forum, Melbourne’s Swinburne and Barcelona’s Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, reported drawing half or more of their online students from their home state. Nearly all of the remainder came from elsewhere in the country, with a few Australian or Spanish expats residing abroad.

Third, foreign online education is prohibitively expensive. Done well, online provision still hasn’t delivered significant economies of scale, largely because personal engagement with learners is very labour intensive. 

Off campus-based transnational education can usually be delivered at a significantly lower cost than study on campus in Australia or the UK because a high proportion of the teaching is done by locally-employed staff at much lower cost than would be the case on the home campus. It is not unusual for fees at a branch campus to be half of those charged in the home country. 

Online education, by contrast, still typically uses teaching staff based in the provider’s home country, and the fees charged are usually the same regardless of where the student is located. For most of the world’s prospective international students, a foreign online programme is going to be way more expensive than any on-campus option offered in their own city.

What is the future of Online Learning?

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