Virtual degrees may matter more to emerging economies

“Going to university” has long been a rite of passage for young adults in the developed world. But is it possible that a future generation, particularly in developing countries, will have the college experience virtually? The growth of information technology means that it is now possible, in principle, to get high-quality lectures and discussions at a computer screen. At the same time, the massive cost of university attendance is raising questions about its value, in debates from the US and the UK to Korea and Japan. Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, among others, has been a loud critic of the expense of college attendance and the poor returns on this investment.

Many universities have traditionally offered distance learning. For example, the UK’s Open University (OU), was founded in 1971, and the University of London’s international study system, is now over 150 years old. The OU is a true virtual university, while the London international programmes are delivered both remotely and by partner universities around the world.

But in the past five years, these courses have been supplemented by huge growth in so-called MOOCs, massive open online courses. They are usually offered for free and without academic credit. The MOOC movement involves many prestigious universities such as MIT, in Cambridge, MA, USA, the University of Tokyo, Japan, and the University of California, USA.

Experts believe that the growing demand for higher education cannot be met by traditional approaches. For example, “there are serious projected teacher shortages in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa,” says Peter Halligan, director of strategy and futures at Cardiff University in Wales, currently seconded to the government of Wales to consider the future of Welsh higher education.

One answer is for MOOCs to be paid for and to carry academic credit, so that they can build up to a formal qualification. After all graduates of online courses are seen as successful learners. And students who have done “blended learning,” online courses with significant personal contact, do best of all.

Several studies of US employers show that they still prefer graduates of traditional physical universities. MOOCs may be particularly suited instead to complementing physical universities in the developing world. There are already successful virtual universities such as Indira Gandhi National Open University in India, according to John O’Leary, editor of the Times [of London] Good University Guide. “The number will grow with demand for higher education, especially in regions where people cannot afford traditional universities,” he says.

Going one step further than just complementing the existing higher education infrastructure, Taiwan’s Ministry of Education is getting alongside the MOOC trend too. It has formed a national MOOC consortium with 100 courses on its books. “We regard MOOCs as a way of leveraging Taiwanese higher education to become an e-learning leader in Asia,” explains Yung-Chi Hou, dean of international education at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taipei.

Moves such as these could allow universities that are not global brands to fight back against the big names. Indeed, Halligan points out that MOOCs are a prime marketing opportunity for big-name universities, but could threaten more modest institutions.

Initiative such as Taiwan’s MOOC consortium might also add more language diversity, as most current MOOCs are in English. Hou says that the Taiwanese initiative will stress learning both in and of Chinese.

Time will tell whether MOOCs have a greater future in developing economies than in developed countries. O’Leary concludes: “Traditional universities have a fight on their hands, but it is one they are capable of winning.” After all, there are some aspects of young adult life that really do require people to meet in person.

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Zuza Ritt

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Martin Ince

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