Digital Degrees

Following on from last week’s post about blended learning, I wanted to focus specifically on the changing attitudes towards online learning in the UK. As a graduate of the Open University, I have experienced the benefits of an online education first hand. For many students, attending a full time or even part time academic course is simply not an option due to work or family commitments, financial difficulties, or health issues. For others, online education may be a personal choice based on individual learning preferences. However, there are still several barriers that hold back the UK in terms of competing internationally in the area of online learning and it is important that it breaks down these barriers if it intends to benefit from the growing global demand for education. The OECD notes that ‘as national economies continue to shift from mass production to “knowledge economy” occupations, countries have strong incentives to build the skills of their populations through higher education’ (2012, p.3). The UK needs to advance the availability of online education if it intends to attract these future students.

Changes in regulation and a shift in attitudes are two necessities to overcoming this hurdle. Removing the cap on student numbers will be a definite step forwards in allowing universities to expand without struggling to keep up with resources. But the UK still has a lot further to go before it catches up with other countries like the US. As more and more students around the world opt for an online education, the US has taken a proactive stance in enticing prospective students to their universities with three quarters of all American universities and colleges now offering online courses. In comparison, the UK has been slow to follow, with some traditional universities offering only limited online options and only as an alternative to the more mainstream face-to-face courses.

There has been a recent encouraging move in the form of the 2013 launch of FutureLearn, a partnership of more than 20 universities that will now offer free online courses (including Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield, Southampton, Leeds, Bristol, Reading, Warwick and the Open University). This follows on from the previous launch of a similar project in the US. The partnership will help universities to access the unmet demand of the overseas education market through Moocs – massive open online courses. These will give students the ability to access material through mobile phones and computers, as well as allowing them access to online content at the British museum, British Library and British Council. The aim is to entice people to continue studying at higher education through the online option, without the worry of having to travel or attend lectures and classes at inconvenient times.

A key addition that many institutions offering online courses are now considering is the availability of a social network for the course. For most people, digital interaction is a regular occurrence for work or personal communication, and this translates into a similar desire for contact whilst studying. An online university course therefore needs to offer some kind of equivalent for the social interaction that a student would get on campus. Online groups and forums allow students to connect with others on the course and discuss ideas and ask questions, preventing the learning experience from becoming a solitary one. The use of live chat room style classes and interactive websites are further means of ensuring that students do not feel isolated, although additional research is being undertaken in order to better understand the role of social media in online education.

The advancement of online degrees is clearly a trend that is set to continue in the future. A survey of online learning conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson and the Sloan Consortium found that the number of students taking at least one online course had grown to 7.1 million and ‘ninety per cent of academic leaders believe that it is “Likely” or “Very Likely” that a majority of all higher education students will be taking at least one online course in five years’ time’ (2014, p.5). The report also highlighted a majority belief that there will be widespread use of student-directed components in future online courses.

Learning is a continual process and the economy’s demand for skills development is evidently on the rise. However it does open a debate over what students are paying for if so much high quality university content is now available online. This question is underscored by the increase in tuition fees in recent years and the fact that online programs can be delivered more affordably and with greater flexibility. There is also the question of awarding students formal credit for their study and the technological requirements needed to monitor this. Higher education institutions will need to be on the front line when it comes to finding the answers and ensuring that they best utilise the opportunities that online education brings.


Allen, E., Seaman, J. (2013) Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States. Babson Report downloaded at: [online]. Accessed 8 September 2014.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2012) Education Indicators In Focus. [online]. Accessed 8 September 2014.

Photo: Benson Kua

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