Professor Diana Laurillard and Dr Eileen Kennedy from the UCL Institute of Education argue that online learning could significantly widen access to higher education, particularly in places where it is currently in short supply.
The paper looks at Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), which are designed to teach learners at scale. MOOCs provide the mechanism to enable access to study to anyone whose circumstances make traditional face-to-face learning difficult or impossible. In particular, they have the potential to extend a form of higher education to the Global South, where demand is high and supply is limited.
The researchers point out that universities could benefit from new revenue streams by providing high quality interactive learning supported by newly created professional roles. Yet they warn there is a risk that universities end up providing low quality programmes for disadvantaged communities, taught by a casualised workforce.
In addition, while MOOCS have the potential to strengthen the public good mission of higher education, profiteering by commercial and private providers could result in reduced access to high quality courses for those without the means to pay.
The challenge of ensuring quality and equity, according to the researchers, is to ensure that scaled up online learning serves the interests of those who need it most. It is also vital to ensure MOOCs are both efficient and sustainable for universities, faculty, professional staff and platform providers.
The researchers argue that the most effective and sustainable model may be a ‘blended’ approach, incorporating face-to-face support with the MOOC content. Such an approach would require research into how participants learn on a MOOC, and how learning can be enhanced through design.
The researchers conclude that online learning at scale has the potential to transform teaching and learning in higher education. The question is how we can make sure that this transformation is productive and sustainable for the future of higher education for all.