Are Online Undergraduate Degrees The Way Forward?

Online Undergraduate Degrees: Are They The Way Forward?

It’s already an accepted practice for degree courses to use blended learning and deliver a proportion of content via a virtual learning platform. In addition, some postgraduate degrees are already offered remotely. The next stage of evolution is 100% online undergraduate degrees. According to an article by the BBC, top universities in the UK will be offering this service within five years. While this might be seen as the inevitable next step, what will students be giving up for the convenience of online learning?

Accessibility

The University of Liverpool is currently offering postgraduate degrees that are fully online, accessed by students from around the globe. There is no doubt that for those seeking a degree in countries where on-site provision is scarce, an eLearning course allows an otherwise unachievable opportunity. It’s also extremely convenient for people who need to work, have impaired mobility or childcare issues. Furthermore, it allows users to engage with learning at a time that’s convenient such as before and after work, weekends, and during lunch breaks. For those without laptops or PCs, there is the option to use less expensive tablets or even smartphones. Not only does this depend on a reliable internet connection, there is the question of data storage: Do you use the cloud or a hard drive? And with large organizations being hacked on a daily basis, is there a security issue?

Affordability

Theoretically, having a MOOC degree that’s delivered via a Learning Management System such as Moodle should reduce costs: Universities would save on utility bills and equipment for lecture halls, plus students wouldn’t have to fork out for accommodation or travel expenses. This does beg the question of what will happen to the established institutions and their ivy-covered walls. It could be conjectured that as more courses go virtual, many of the "hallowed halls" would become redundant and either be sold off or fall into disuse. Those in charge of university finances may welcome a virtual campus, but for some top-level  institutions, the lofty reputation is as much to do with the prestigious campus and elite alumnae as the course itself. So from that perspective, an online BA or MSc could be seen as the great leveler, with students choosing a university based on content alone.

Tailor-Made

With professors often having to lecture to hundreds of students, it’s impossible to tweak courses to the individual’s requirements, and extremely difficult to have one-to-ones with tutors. A flexible Learning Management System would make it simpler to modify content for different users and support could come via course forums, chat rooms, SMS, Facetime, or Skype. But wouldn’t students engage and retain more if they’re physically in a classroom? Not necessarily. It would depend on how well the course is written and structured for an eLearning platform. Taking conventionally-taught material and simply transposing it to a Learning Management System isn’t enough; the course must be designed to fit the medium and not the other way around, which will take someone who understands how to make the most of an eLlearning platform. In All Aboard the eLearning Train (Hartley, 2000), Hartley recognizes that the challenge for universities is to offer students a more client-oriented educational program.

Old Dogs

Looking at it from an educator’s perspective, if you’ve been teaching a certain way for decades with good results and you’re not particularly au fait with current technology, where is the incentive to move to a Learning Management System? Developers are continuously improving eLearning platforms so they are more intuitive to use, but this may not be enough for tenured professors set in their ways. Nonetheless, encouraging research might persuade the reluctant lecturer. For those who do become virtual learners, taking full responsibility for completing courses will encourage self-reliance and independence, and could develop an interest in lifelong learning, according to the paper entitled A Study Into The Effects Of eLearning On Higher Education (Singh, O’Donoghue, Worton, 2005).

Formal Learning Aside

While the advantages of remote learning for students may seem overwhelming, attending college is not just about gaining a piece of paper. For many it’s the chance to live away from home for the first time. It’s a way for them to mature and develop in character through social relationships, having to look after themselves, and making mistakes. The parties, roomies, and late-night pizza calls are all part of the process too. Eliminating all these things denies an important rite of passage that is as important as the degree itself. It will be interesting to see what effect this has in the long term.

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