The future of online learning

Two experts predict how technology will affect studies in 2020

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In the first of an occasional series featuring two experts debating a hot topic for students, Anant Agarwal and Chip Paucek, chief executives of online learning providers edX and 2U respectively, share their predictions for business education in 2020.

Mr Agarwal and Mr Paucek also feature in a live Q&A. Read the full debate between the experts and FT readers.

Anant Agarwal, chief executive of edX

As 2015 brings us to the middle of the decade, we are encouraged to evaluate the gains of the last five years and speculate on the five to come. For providers of Moocs (massive open online courses), I am enthusiastic about what the next five years will hold. Overall, we are discovering that current and prospective students engage with online education more as additional options become available. Given our findings, I expect that these options – in courses, credentials and programme design – will continue to diversify:

• Students worldwide will have access to virtually any course subject in just about any language - tens of thousands of free Moocs offering everything from fine arts to engineering. Today, for example, edX and our Open edX partners offer more than 1,000 free Moocs.

• Moocs will get personal. One common misconception is that Moocs are impersonal. When we taught the first MITx Mooc on circuits, students told me that they felt as if the professor was sitting right there. Interactive technologies will continue to evolve and Mooc learning will personalise further; offering multiple pathways to navigate courses that fit specific learning styles and speeds.

• Traditional credentials valued today will diversify, moving beyond the college degree as employers increasingly accept certificates for Mooc courses. Mooc platforms are already headed in this direction. We will also see more badges, such as Mozilla’s Open Badges.

• The blended model will become the new normal. By 2020, 50 per cent of all college campus coursework will combine in-person and online learning; a shift driven by student demand for the convenience and effectiveness of online learning. MIT’s recent task force report on the future of MIT education, for example, was unequivocal in its support of the blended model.

• Leveraging online courses, students will become continuous learners, cultivating new skillsets throughout their careers. Year one may be online with two years then spent on-campus. And instead of the traditional final year, students will enter the workforce to gain real-world skills and continue their learning through an annual subscription to their university.

• Moocs will translate into credit –Today, universities commonly award first-year students AP credits, accept credits for transfer students and award course credits and degrees to online students. In the near future, Mooc certificates will transfer to course credit in similar ways.

• Moocs as “New Age” textbooks – Many universities will use Moocs as a new kind of textbook; including videos, game-like simulations and interactive exercises. For classes, professors will augment public Mooc content with private, in-person experiences.

• Closing the college readiness gap – Increasingly, Moocs will help prepare students for college. Just as many schools mandate required summer reading prior to freshman year, specific Moocs with self-assessment preparedness tests may be required of accepted students, thereby ensuring they arrive on campus better prepared.

• Closing the skills gap – Moocs will help close the skills gap for employers. Employees will be encouraged to take online courses with self-assessment preparedness tests in specific skill sets when hired; or even later to keep pace with emerging trends and technologies.

• Digital dormitories will synthesize degrees from various MOOC providers – Growing institutions, especially in developing nations, will aggregate existing MOOC courses into synthesized degree programs. These institutions will focus on providing students a campus experience, perhaps with tutoring support, but obtain educational content from MOOCs.

• Educators have long known that each student is an individual, with unique needs, talents and goals. Moocs are not only bringing education to more people, they are tailoring the learning experience to meet the needs of tomorrow’s students, universities, and employers. I am excited by the possibilities.

Chip Paucek, chief executive of 2U

When we started 2U in 2008, with the idea of helping colleges and universities bring their degree programmes online, the biggest obstacle we faced were the preconceived notions of online education – which were terrible. No one believed that an online degree programme could match the rigour and educational experience of an on-campus programme.

Seven years later, I would say that those negative preconceived notions are still the biggest challenge we face, but there are real indications that things may be in the process of changing for the better.

While the much-hyped Mooc movement has largely failed to deliver on its promises and has probably added to the skepticism surrounding online education, Mooc-mania, which peaked in 2012, has also had some positive effects.

Driven in large by the Mooc phenomenon, interest in online education is as high as it has ever been. More students are looking to online education as a viable option and a number of top-tier institutions have dipped their toes into the online waters through Mooc offerings and are now exploring alternative options.

In fact, working with 2U and other service providers, a number of pioneering elite schools have now launched online degree programmes that treat the online student as equivalent to the on-campus student – offering the same degree, with the same classes and the same faculty, through a platform that delivers an educational experience that is as good as, or even better than, on-campus programmes.

To date, 2U’s university partners have enrolled more than 10,000 online students across the US and around the world who are experiencing what online education can offer at its best. And, as other schools and students take note, we feel very positive about the future.

While it is still the “exception” today, as more prestigious, top-tier universities begin offering fully online degrees that are equivalent in every way to their on-campus counterparts, attitudes toward online education are changing for the good. Going forward, I believe this momentum will only continue to accelerate, driven by several factors:

• First, by the end of the decade, a fully equivalent online option for earning a degree will no longer be optional. Those universities that do not provide these offerings will be hard-pressed to remain competitive as their peers scale dramatically through the ability to serve students regardless of location.

• Second, the sheer number of students who will be participating online will make the lack of an online offering unacceptable. Student expectations and pressure also will demand that these online programmes match the rigour of on-campus.

• Lastly, student outcomes and experiences from the pioneers who are bringing degree programmes online today will show that online degree programmes not only can provide equivalent or superior experiences, but that they also provide universities with the opportunity to scale their student population in a way that has never before been possible.

The programmes that 2U enables with its university partners blend live face-to-face classes, dynamic course content and real-world learning experiences – an approach that 2U calls “No Back Row,” which ensures every qualified student can experience the highest quality university education for the most successful outcome. The result is an educational experience that rivals any on-campus programme.

By taking this approach, 2U partner universities start to see there is no difference between students on campus or online. The digital technology available today permits us to end the distinction between on-campus and online degrees. And, my prediction is that by 2020 this desegregation will be complete across the board. At every school, there will no longer be online or on-campus students. Just students.

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