Universities and colleges around the world are increasingly adopting eLearning to extend their repertoire to online programmes. While this isn’t a recent development, with academic institutions blazing the trail as early as the late twentieth century, the transition has accelerated in the past few years. To understand the intricacies of this topic, we’ll explore a multitude of contributing factors, starting with its catalysts.
As with all innovations, the adoption of eLearning was spurred on by several ideas and developments in the educational environment. These catalysts brought eLearning to the forefront of our attention and opened our collective eyes to its potential. One such catalyst was the democratisation of knowledge.
According to John Dewey, “democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” Applying democratic theories to education paves the way for us to remove any barriers that prevent individuals from accessing knowledge. In a sense, this was seen as their altruistic contribution to the world.
The familiar phrase, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, can also shed some light on why this is so essential. Demographics that couldn’t easily access higher education in the past can still feel the ripple effect. eLearning has reduced the elitism that often plays a role in gaining entrance to an esteemed university. Individuals are more easily able to apply and study at their institution of choice, regardless of their economic access, class, race or nationality.
By democratising higher education and adopting eLearning, universities strategically open up their student base or target audience to a much wider population. For instance, they don’t need to target people within their location, as someone in Amsterdam could complete a course from a university in Toronto. Universities don’t need to be as selective about their entrants either because physical parameters no longer play a role. As more universities deployed online courses, the market became competitive and drove the eLearning trend further.
With the passing of time, prospective students became more shrewd when choosing their university, degree or course. Nathan Greeno refers to them as “savvy consumers [...] looking for high-quality [programmes] that deliver academic excellence, engaging experiences, and a clear return on investment.” As online courses flood the market, academic institutions that don’t offer them are behind the curve. This prompted universities to adopt eLearning and remain competitive. However, the competitive game changed. Universities aren’t just competing with those in their state or country – they’re playing on a global stage. Being the most prestigious university in your country no longer holds the same weight. Students can still seek elsewhere for better skill development, prices or experiences. If this wasn’t enough to convince universities, the pandemic temporarily made the choice for them.
The pandemic regulations monumentally changed the modes and methods used in education. Institutions that didn’t offer online courses beforehand had to shift gears with short notice. In this way, universities went online as a stop-gap. They used live sessions and online assessments to duplicate and digitise the in-person experience. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, universities were very strategic about how they put their courses online. This wasn’t just duplication – it was leveraging eLearning and its tools, technologies and pedagogies. For this reason, there is a difference between duplication and purposefully creating online courses. Either way, Clark, Wittmayer, Noone and Selingo assert that the pandemic highlighted the potential of eLearning. Although temporary, it facilitated “a radical reimagining of the way colleges and universities conduct operations and serve their students.” This reimagining has set the stage for a more permanent online or hybrid solution.
Additional revenue stream
Both before and after the advent of the pandemic, educational leaders have noticed that providing online courses brings in an additional revenue stream. Academic institutions can earn their revenue through different means. The main sources are student tuition and the money that academics make through research and publishing their research. Being able to reach more students in a more cost effective method introduced a third revenue stream – eLearning.
Online solutions have many financial benefits. As Byrd and Mixon explain in their article on the topic, eLearning has been a tool to hurdle negative economic environments. Furthermore, it reduces a university’s dependence on state funding and remodels it into a “profit maximising firm.” As governments reconsider how they fund higher education and training, universities and colleges can avoid falling victim to a lack of financial support by broadening their sources of income.
As with all innovations, there are certain challenges that hinder the implementation of online learning solutions. One of these challenges is hesitation from academics and their level of competence.
Many academics completed their degrees through a more traditional approach and, to a certain extent, it’s all they know. eLearning is a far cry from the more old-fashioned in-person structure. As a result, they are hesitant to disturb the status quo. Additionally, academics don’t necessarily get paid for their work in the online course sector. Being a subject matter expert is an extra role that can take time away from their research. If they don’t have enough time or funding on their hands, they might not see online course development as a priority.
eLearning also focuses on somewhat different aspects of education. While theory, research and high-level thinking do play a role in online education, it pays more attention to usable skills. Acquiring the necessary support from faculties and academics can be a considerable challenge. As the speakers in a HolonIQ webinar expressed, the progress of EdTech is “constrained by archaic structural models and faculty governance.” Innovation in this space requires more focus on learner needs than status. This is one of the areas that need improvement.
Another obstacle is that online course development may not be part of an institution’s internal skill set. Most universities have a centralised learning centre or department that ensures the high quality of teaching, related philosophies and policies. While highly qualified, the individuals in these positions often follow traditional approaches and might not be competent in online solutions.
The solution to this challenge is outsourcing the development. Many digital learning agencies, including Groundflr, offer consulting and development services to design training strategies and programmes. By utilising external agencies, universities don’t need to fret about not having internal competence.
Ideal education models
While higher education is increasingly adopting online or hybrid solutions, they tend to serve different purposes. As such, universities need to determine whether those purposes align with their own.
Different education models also suit particular student profiles more or less. For instance, a full-time undergraduate student is more likely to prefer an on-campus option. On the other hand, a working professional may prefer online or hybrid learning so that they can arrange their schedules accordingly.
Location is also a factor that we can’t ignore. If students are all within the institution’s vicinity, they may be open to in-person or hybrid models. However, a student that lives on the other side of the globe clearly can’t attend in-person lectures.
As always, education is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Institutions and students alike need to consider which arrangement best suits their needs.
HolonIQ suggested that, while all areas of development are important, learning design and learner experience are the top priorities. Academic institutions that want to develop their online course offering should keep these at the forefront of their mind throughout the process.
Within these two priorities, there is an area that requires the most attention. Respondents to HolonIQ's survey believe that digital skills in learning design are the most critical. One respondent said that “it is a challenge to hit the right level of digital capability that meets the broad demographic range of our adult learner student population.” Digital skills are also seen as the most significant area of need within learner experience. As their research suggests, between one third and one half of academic institutions believe that their current digital skills level is low.
As you embark on the eLearning venture, focusing on digital skills, learning design and learner experience will guide your path.
The future of eLearning
So, what does the future of eLearning look like and are we well on our way? These statistics indicate that we are indeed moving towards widespread online courses:
- “83% of companies plan to accelerate digital transformation.
- 80% of transformations are intended to be at least partially self-funded by existing digital initiatives.
- 75% of transformations are on the agenda of the CEO/ExCo leadership throughout the lifecycle.
- ~65% of respondents anticipate increased investments in digital transformation.”
While there may be hesitation about how to complete digital transformations from a business perspective, the overarching theme is the adoption of eLearning – especially since the pandemic began.
There is mounting pressure for higher education institutions to complete digital transformations. The reasons for this pressure are varied, including the advancement of technology and growing options for students. However, it is important to note that the future of work looks different too. If the subsequent careers will utilise digital skills, wouldn’t it be imperative for education to do so as well?
Remaining in the past and avoiding eLearning models is counter-productive. The world is rapidly evolving and education is transforming just as swiftly. When you look back on the innovation that springboarded the academic sector into the future, will you note yourself as one of the trailblazers or someone working against the tide?
Byrd, J. and Mixon, P. (2012). Revenues and E-learning: Do Universities Need an Online Presence? Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management [online], 34(6), pp. 601-609. [accessed 8 April 2022].
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York City: Macmillan.
Greeno, N. (2021). Why a Digital Transformation Strategy Is an Imperative for Universities, Now More Than Ever [online]. [accessed 8 April 2022].
HolonIQ. (2021). Understanding Digital Transformation in Higher Education - Webinar 1 [video online]. [accessed 8 April 2022].
Sarkar, S. (2020). A Brief History of Online Education [online]. [accessed 8 April 2022].
Selingo, J.J., Clark, C., Noone, D. and Wittmayer, A. (2021). The Hybrid Campus [online]. [accessed 8 April 2022].