Sunday, January 28, 2018

Online learning - the road to credibility

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With the abundance of online education, including MOOCs, it is easy to assume that global online education is already established and recognised. However, an article by Christopher Ziguras in University World NewsWill global online higher education ever take off?suggests that online education is still struggling to gain credibility in many countries and that the numbers of students taking online courses in countries other than their own is actually rather small. Certainly there has been a massive growth in online education in recent years but it's not as international as we may think.

... when we look at cross-border education, the scale of fully online provision is still miniscule. There are around 150,000 students outside Australia enrolled in Australian qualifications: two-thirds in university programmes and the rest in vocational and upper secondary qualifications.

Virtually all of the school and vocational education students, and more than 90% of those in higher education, are studying on a branch campus or with a local partner institution. And yet for decades we have seen predictions that students who cannot travel abroad to study, either due to cost or commitments at home, would seek out foreign study options online.

Enrolling in an online degree at a foreign institution is often a complicated process since the enrollment procedure is aimed at students from that country and naturally the forms are in that country's official language(s). On top of that are the fees which in many cases are higher than studying at a local institution. Those who do enroll from abroad tend to be citizens of that country living elsewhere and who know the national education system. In the EU the Bologna agreement has to some extent opened up European higher education but applying to study online at a university in another country is still not simple. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this, such as virtual mobility programmes where students can attend online courses at partner universities as a for-credit part of their own studies (see for example the recent OUVM project). However, the numbers of transnational students in online courses are still more exception than norm.

Universities with a large international outreach have their own campuses in strategic locations around the world or run courses in partnership with local institutions. Here they can blend traditional campus teaching with online elements from the host institution and offer international degrees without students having to leave their own country.

The main sticking point for fully online education, according to the article, is credibility.

Many governments, including China, India and Vietnam, refuse point blank to recognise foreign degrees undertaken online, citing a range of concerns. They believe the quality of online study is inferior, legitimate providers are difficult to distinguish from online degree mills and they perceive online student fraud to be rife.

Despite international quality guidelines and labels for online education the whole area is tainted by the abundance of fraudulent practices, bogus universities and degree mills. Furthermore there are the recurring concerns about the risks of plagiarism and cheating in online courses. All these issues are being addressed and solutions are emerging but the road to credibility will take time. Above all we need wider adoption of internationally recognised quality labels for online courses to make it easy to distinguish between quality education and fraud. 

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