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February 15, 2017

How the Online Education Will Make Traditional Colleges Obsolete

The online education industry has been one of the consistently fast growing sectors in recent years. Google search data shows that interest in online education and courses has more than doubled since 2010. Many universities have adapted to this change in consumer requirements, offering online units as standalone courses or as credit toward college diplomas and degrees. It has also lead to the rise of "online only" education providers that offer certified online qualifications with the convenience of no classroom attendance required, flexible assessments and study periods. The number of students taking online courses grew to 5.8 million nationally in 2015* (US), an increase of nearly 4% on the previous year.

A report released by the Online Learning Consortium in February last year also revealed that one in four students enrolled in higher education are also enrolled in at least one online course. The report asked academic leaders if they perceive online education as "critical to their long-term strategy", to which only 63% agreed, down from nearly 73% in 2015. This highlights an interesting difference in the perception of online learning between students and the providers of "traditional" higher education".

Online education, and the matter in which it is delivered to students, is evolving. At many colleges and universities students are now able to access course materials online at any time, including access to video lectures or live streams, as well as study notes and course guides. With VR technology appearing on the horizon, one can image how emerging technology could all but eliminate the necessity for student and teacher to share a physical space in order to interact.

The benefits of online learning also extend beyond simple convenience. Many online courses offer flexible study times and assessments along with access to alternative payment options. This means that those looking to add a qualification to their resume in order to advance their careers can do so without needing to leave the workforce or, in many cases, take out high-interest student loads.

Arguably the most influential factor limiting the further growth of the online education sector is consumer confidence. There is a perception that online courses are somehow inferior to their classroom-based equivalents, and as such one might have trouble finding online courses that match the industry certification or formal qualification offered by traditional schools. This could potentially be addressed by the creation of industry regulatory bodies that set in place formal requirements related to the learning outcomes and assessments of a given course. This would allow employers to have confidence that a new employee's training was completed with the same expectations regarding student learning as those who graduate from a classroom-based environment.

The education industry seems to be somewhat at odds with the millions of students who insist on more flexible leaning environments. Considering the enormity of the education industry in the US, one would expect that such a change in consumer demand would breed innovation and collaboration - instead we're at a crossroads, and those that don't adapt may find their customer base rapidly shrinking.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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