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Technology Unlikely to Impact the Viability of International Branch Campuses in a Decade

AUDIO | Technology Unlikely to Impact the Viability of International Branch Campuses in a Decade
Though the online learning market is sure to be completely different in 10 years’ time, it is unlikely that the viability of international branch campuses will be seriously affected, as they offer a unique product to a specific group of students.

The following interview is with Kevin Kinser, co-director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team and associate professor in the School of Education at SUNY Albany. Kinser is a well-known voice in the field of international higher education. In this interview, Kinser explains how the expansion of online programming will impact the viability of international branch campuses in a decade’s time, and shares his thoughts on some of the challenges facing branch campuses today.

1. Higher education institutions are creating increasingly robust online program offerings, which are attracting and driving up enrollment of international students. What kind of impact is this having on the viability of branch campuses?

Well, so many things are affecting viability of branch campuses, so I guess this adds this one to the list. But I think actually the online component is a fairly tangential aspect with what’s going on compared to so many other issues.

Also, for the most part we have our separate decision streams. Students interested in online aren’t really the market that the branch campuses are targeting. And, also, institutions considering branch campuses are not really thinking that the online is an equivalent substitute to what they’re planning in their overseas location.

2. What are some of those main issues that are affecting viability of branch campuses?

Well, enrollment is a key aspect of it. It’s kind of difficult to expand an institution overseas and gain a sufficient amount of enrollment to make it a viable enterprise. I think more of what we’re seeing is that the role and relationship of in-country partners is becoming pretty important. Places that can facilitate the entry into another country, smooth over some of the regulatory matters, put a promotion, advertising, marketing plan in place that actually matches what the demand is in the country.

Another thing is the role of faculty, both faculty at the home campus and faculty in the branch campus. Especially teaching there, and how do you get a high enough quality academic workforce in order to provide the program with an equivalent quality to what you might have on your main campus? A main campus, by the way, that has often been around for hundreds of years.

3. In a similar vein, a high percentage of students enrolling in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are international. Is access to this high-quality, low-cost education opened up by MOOC providers, such as Coursera and Udemy, challenging the viability of branch campuses?

Well, I don’t think it’s really doing that yet. And I emphasize “yet.” One thing I’d like to push back on is the high quality aspect of the education. I’m not saying that they are not necessarily high quality because they’re online — I think, obviously, you can do quite high quality online education — but we really don’t know anything about the quality of MOOCs in any sort of empirical sense, other than what we know generally about quality and online learning.

It’s interesting to note — and I think it’s important to actually emphasize — that we assume these are high quality efforts because they come from institutions with such strong reputation. The reputations have been gained because they are elite research institutions, not because of anything that has to do with their academics, with their teaching, that sort of thing. The professors that are planning these courses for the most part — and perhaps they have been successful in teaching on campus environments — but many of them have had relatively little experience in an online environment. So, I wonder somewhat about the presumption that these are high quality, just based on the reputation of the offering institution.

One piece of evidence associated with this, of course, is that none of the — or very few of the MOOCs that are in existence — … actually award credits from the offering institution. So, if the institution that’s actually offering these courses isn’t willing to provide credit to the student, to recognize the learning that’s happening in any sort of formal sense, then it does raise some questions about what the value is in an overall sense. Again, it could be quite valuable in certain contexts in certain ways, but just to assume that it’s high quality is a bit more challenging.

4. Looking into the future, how will branch campuses already in operation be able to compete with the increasing availability of high quality online higher educational opportunities coming from accredited online programs as well as from the potential evolution in quality of MOOC providers?

That’s a real question moving forward because if we do in fact get these high quality, online educational experiences, particularly from an international perspective, one would presume there would be some attraction of student market, particularly in places that don’t have access to a lot of this high quality education. I’m thinking developing world and countries in Africa, those sorts of places, where this could be a real boon to them to be able to have access to these sorts of materials.

We’ve seen relatively limited effort of branch campuses to enter these markets because there isn’t a solid revenue stream to be able to devote to it. But this could really be an area where these online courses could have some opportunities. And once they’re demonstrated as being successful, I would imagine they would spread widely.

5. Do you think branch campuses will be a viable investment for universities in 10 years’ time?

Yes, I think so. I don’t see anything changing fundamentally within the next 10 years that would reduce the value of on-campus enrollment in the … way that branch campuses are attempting to provide it. I doubt that it’s going to be a widespread phenomenon, in the sense that many, many institutions are going to be moving this route. Again, it’s an expensive endeavor and is something that has to match the mission of the home institution and also be something that’s welcome by the host country. But I think it can be a viable investment, some of the ones that have done well are enrolling several thousand students now. There are plans in place to develop additional campuses in some of the international hubs such as in Singapore, Malaysia. Of course, the Middle East has already demonstrated the importance of branch campuses and providing significant capacity in a local or a regional market. So, I don’t see that these campuses are going to fade away or completely just vanish in the next 10 years.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about branch campuses and the challenges that could be brought by the growth of online education?

Well, I think we talk about delivering education in some ways as if we’re delivering a pizza and I think it’s a lot more complicated than that.

There are issues associated with the construction of the curriculum and making sure that we have appropriate student interaction, appropriate faculty, oversight and the quality control; that there’s someone minding the store, in a sense. And one of the things that branch campuses are attempting to do is put those physical pieces in place so that the experience can be as close as possible to what we see as valuable in an on-campus experience.

That said, I think that the online environment is becoming even more robust. What we can do now, we could only imagine 10 years ago. So, in 10 years’ time, I think we are going to see a lot of new initiatives that aren’t only just now becoming clear at this moment.

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