The Digitalisation of Education

One of the world’s most prolific and highly rated universities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has announced the launch of a free, accredited course that is available online. Many of America’s Ivy League colleges post their course material online, making it available worldwide, and some have previously produced online courses; however, this is the first example of a university creating a course that is completely free, without entrance requirements and open to anyone in the world. With the advent of exorbitant tuition fees and the flexibility offered by online qualifications, is the digitalisation of education the way forward?

The first course offered under the new program, MITx, will be an undergraduate level course on Circuits and Electronics. A university spokesperson said that the course would not be a “watered down” version of the same course offered on campus, the only difference being that everything from the textbooks to group discussions and examinations will take place virtually. With MIT as one of the world’s leading universities, it is likely that many others will follow suit and soon there may be the equivalent of your degree course available online for free. This could be a great advance for future generations but it could also irrevocably damage the higher education system in this country and around the world.

Online degrees of little or no cost would open up university-standard education to a wider and much more diverse student population and also lead to graduates entering the job market with minimal debt. A graduate population with accredited online degrees could be a new workforce of debt-free alumni willing to take risks and invest in the economy, something that has been lacking recently. However, the loss of campuses, teaching and administrative staff and the very bricks and mortar that make up British universities would bring about an end to much that makes university such a unique experience. Many talented research professors would lose their jobs in order to maintain the low costs of running an online degree program, research would all but disappear from universities which would instead focus on delivering quality teaching virtually and the social elements that university life delivers would have to be found elsewhere.

Of the many online qualifications currently available, the Open University degree is probably the most successful, with over 150,000 students registered at any one time. The program offers online tuition, examinations and seminars alongside the option to attend physical meetings at a local centre. Students with Open University degrees list the ability to learn independently and their ‘open degree’ (which allows for a variety of modules to be taken together) as the highlights of the program. Although most OU students rate their experience highly, some downsides include the solitary nature of online learning and how employers view an OU degree. One student review says, “the biggest downside to studying with the OU for me has been the lack of interaction with other students and staff.” Another reviewer agrees, adding that it can be difficult in interviews to impress “closed minded employers who don’t know anything about the OU.” Though the qualifications acquired from the OU may not be as prestigious as those delivered by other universities, due to exorbitant tuition fees and the opportunity to work alongside studying, the OU’s popularity is on the rise.

Online learning appears to be the future of higher education, but it remains to be seen to what extent the students of the future will embrace it. For humanities and arts degrees, notoriously difficult to grade, the appeal of a virtual qualification is diminished and universities are unlikely to turn their backs on the huge numbers of students willing to pay thousands for these degrees. The future of online degrees depends upon the readiness of universities to potentially lose fee-paying students whilst getting their programs off the ground and the acceptance by employers of these new degrees as legitimate. If both of these changes can happen, then online degrees in certain subjects, namely science based degrees where the answers are generally not subjective, could potentially revolutionise the job market. Graduates with minimal debt and a recognized qualification would be much more likely to be hired, given their ability to be financially independent and accept a lower salary. Online learning has been growing for over a decade, but with MIT’s launch into the sphere, it is likely that the future of brick universities and their ability to charge students astronomical amounts for degree courses is about to change.

Issy Moore

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