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Online Learning: Driving Higher Education’s Transformative Years

The EvoLLLution | Online Learning: Driving Higher Education’s Transformative Years
Online learning has been the main driver of higher education’s transformation over the past few years, responding to broad shifts in demand and stakeholder expectations to reinvent the postsecondary product.

Online education has been subject to an intense and contentious debate across public and professional media about the role and value of college degrees. The long-held trust in education as the most reliable path to prosperity and personal realization continues to be stridently challenged. Critics point to high tuitions and curricula irrelevant to industry needs as root causes for excessive student debt, inability to secure well-paying jobs, and a widening gap between the education opportunities for the privileged few and the majority of the population. As academia was perceived to be rigid and resistant to change, business-inspired solutions (more notably for-profit institutions), shorter formats (e.g. digital badges, industry certification, microcredentials) and an emphasis on specific skills (competency-based learning) gained renewed attention. However, it was academia that designed and implemented a variety of educational experiments ranging from online multi-sensory materials to support flipped classrooms, to Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), to modular and hybrid programs, and recently to very low-cost online degrees from elite institutions (Georgia Tech, University of Texas at Austin).

A common thread across all these efforts to rethink and radically change higher education is the presence of online teaching and learning as a technological and pedagogical backbone. Currently, online education is firmly in the mainstream and digital learning approaches permeate both traditional residential and hybrid courses. Looking back at recent history I ask myself how and when did an alternative delivery mode, often perceived as inferior to in-person education and tolerated mostly for its convenience and accessibility, become part of the degree portfolio of some of the most selective academic institutions in the world such as Stanford, MIT, Georgia Tech, University of Pennsylvania, Imperial College-London, and Johns Hopkins? Full understanding of this development will require more time to allow for trends to develop and permit a detailed evaluation.

Presently I would like to share my personal opinion on the driving forces and the changes in expectations they have triggered in the latest phase of online education. In my view, the watershed year was 2012. It brought us the massive open online courses that captured the imagination of anybody remotely interested in education (practically, everybody) and was aptly named the Year of the MOOC.

MOOCs: Promise, Disappointments, and Contributions

More than 160,000 students enrolled in the first MOOC, Introduction Into AI, by Sebastian Thrun (Stanford) and Peter Norvig (Stanford and Google). The phenomenon had no parallel in history. How do you teach 160,000 students? More courses followed. Two million students signed up in 2012, a number that grew to ten million in 2013. The excitement was palpable. Had the dream of the best education, available for free, anywhere in the world, to anybody regardless of wealth, become reality? And as a darker corollary, was this the beginning of the demise of all colleges except the very best ones? Who would take a course from the local college and pay tuition (even if not a very high one) instead of studying at no cost with the scientists defining the field? It seemed an inevitable confirmation of Christensen disruption theory—a technology enabled innovation replacing the expensive, complex, selective college education.

However, troubling data emerged as early as 2013.[1] Completion rates were low (six to eight percent), 80 percent of MOOC students already had a two-year or four-year college degree, and 44 percent had some graduate education. The majority of international students came from a wealthier and more educated background.[2],[3] Six years later little has changed: Completion rates remain low despite much effort to improve them, the majority of U.S. participants live in wealthier zip codes and international students come from the wealthier segments in the wealthiest countries.

Currently the focus of the large MOOC organizations is on finding a sustainable financial model, partnering with academic institutions to offer online degrees, serving as a delivery platform and marketing venue.

So, were MOOCs a failure? Hardly. They have brought some of the most brilliant minds to the field of online education, set standards of superior course design and content, and continue to further our understanding for the challenges of teaching at a large scale. And while the emphasis is more on paying students, MOOCs remain a free alternative to those who have the stamina, motivation and intellectual ability to study with minimal faculty help. In 2018 more than 100 million students enrolled in MOOCs offered by over 900 universities—a testimony for a lasting imprint.

“Traditional” Online Education Integrates with On-Campus Offerings

Throughout the creative turmoil of new technologies and the anxiety of disruption, traditional online education—that is for-credit, instructor-led programs—continued to expand, remaining the only sector of higher education with sustained enrollment growth. From 2012 to 2016, overall college enrollments decreased 3.8 percent losing more than 800,000 students while online enrollments increased by 17.2 percent adding more than 900,000 students.[4]

There are two important trends that have shaped the traditional online education sector. First, the acceptance and availability of online courses as an alternative to in-person courses. The number of students taking a combination of online and on-campus courses grew faster than those studying exclusively online. Arguably, it is the access and flexibility afforded by the online courses that shielded colleges from steeper enrollment declines. Second, the emergence of an online continuum. Online materials have become an integral part of all delivery formats—providing resources (readings, virtual labs, simulations, etc.) for the traditional in-person course, the foundation for the flipped classroom, the online component of hybrid classes, and the comprehensive virtual environment of the fully online class.

The Rise of the Online Master’s Degree

Against the backdrop of falling overall enrollments, graduate studies (predominantly at the Master’s level) are the second growth area in addition to online education. Total graduate enrollments increased by 2.2 percent and online graduate enrollments increased by 27.6 percent from 2012 to 2016. Remarkably, the growth is driven by the large-scale acceptance and adoption of online learning, including online degrees, by research-intensive universities, including the most selective ones. Fully online graduate degrees offered by R1 schools (the top 115 research intensive schools according to the Carnegie classification) grew by 78 percent from 2012 to 2017.[5]

These are the same universities that used to shun and question the quality of online education. But for the last two years they have been aggressively introducing online graduate programs and experimenting with pricing, admission criteria, and “at scale” teaching approaches to expand to new student populations.

The question arises: What brought this change of heart? The reasons are manifold. Decreases in federal and state funding have already resulted in financial pressures for higher education institutions. Looming ahead are unfavorable demographic shifts—fewer college-age students with a higher percentage from lower-income families. In addition, rapid changes in technology and in the structure of the economy and the workforce are making lifelong learning, once an option for the most highly motivated, a requirement for continued employment. Not answering to these educational demands would be shortsighted even for the top 20 institutions and, indeed, they are at the forefront of experimentation. The most interesting idea is the very large, low-cost Master of Science program that was launched by Georgia Tech with an MS in Computer Science in 2013. The program was priced at just $7,000 as compared to approximately $44,000 for the residential program, and it was taught by the same faculty however in a MOOC-like style with limited instructional support in classes with large enrollments. Last year, Georgia Tech started a cyber security program priced at less than $10,000 followed by similarly low-cost Master’s programs by University of Texas, University of California San Diego and Arizona State.

Alternative Credentials

Alternative credentials (badges, nanodegrees, MicroMasters, industry certifications, etc.) were seen as the second disruptive force along with the MOOCs. Their distinctive format—short, stackable modules delivering job-relevant, focused, just-in-time content—was a direct answer to the criticism of the traditional college degree. It was natural to conjecture that they will become an alternative to degrees. Instead, they evolved into a complement to credit-bearing programs and currently are filling the gap between academia and industry-specific training or providing a path to traditional degrees (MicroMasters).

While not the anticipated disrupter, alternative credentials have an established place in the educational space. The majority are offered as Coursera specialization and edX Professional Certificates, some as non-credit programs by colleges, and there is an emerging trend of industry-academia collaborations.

The Long-Term Vision

Over the last five years, the latent ideas for reinventing college were tested on large-scale projects with millions of participating students. None abolished traditional degrees, but the clash and juxtaposition of competing innovations transformed the educational landscape. In contrast to just five years ago, we now expect that online courses will be a standing part of college offerings, that all delivery modes (in-person, online, hybrid) will have a rich portfolio of online content, virtual laboratories, test banks and hands-on exercises, that free courses will remain available, and that the potential of new technologies (e.g. virtual reality, artificial intelligence) for improving teaching and learning continues to be explored and realized.


[1] Steve Kolowich, MOOCs Are Largely Reaching Privileged Learners, Survey Finds, The Chronicle of Higher Education, November, 2013.

[2] “registrants in the US live in neighborhoods with median incomes ca. .45 standard deviation higher than the US population” in JD Hansen, J Reich: “Socioeconomic Status and MOOC Enrollment: Enriching Demographic Information with External Data Sets” LAK ’15 Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge

[3] The MOOC pivot, Science, January, 2019.

[4] Includes all students taking at least one online course. JE Seaman, IE Allen, J Seaman, Grade Increase, Babson Survey Research Group, 2018,

[5] IPEDS data cited in “How Elite Universities Are Changing the Online Master’s Game”, R. Garrett, Encoura, November, 2018.

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