THE BLOG

A Future For Higher Education... That Works

19/12/2016 12:28 GMT | Updated 19/12/2016 12:28 GMT

Why would anyone want to be a student today? As David Birch pointed out recently, the average cost of tuition and fees at private national universities has risen by 179 per cent since 1995. Last month, we saw the latest march against the current government's education policies - a tradition that has become as much a part of student life as Rag Week - while changes to student finance in Wales will see many students losing their grants.

The answer to this question is, of course, that universities are seen as the only realistic pathway to employment for a whole range of careers. But the education landscape is indeed changing, and David has shown us how technology is opening up new opportunities for people to access a great education for the fraction of the cost of traditional undergraduate degrees.

Before we get carried away with the possibilities of online learning and MOOCs, however, it's important to sound a note of caution. Technology is not a silver bullet; nor is it a guarantee of quality. In fact, the lack of regulation for online learning means that it's easier than ever for charlatans to set up their own establishments, offering dodgy "degrees" that are barely worth the paper they're printed on.

The government's proposals to relax the rules governing the accreditation of new institutions was one of the central issues earning the ire of the most recent student demonstrators - and they have a right to be worried. At present, there is no overarching system of accreditation - or even best practice - for judging the merits of an online education course.

This matters. The last thing that tomorrow's students need is an educational marketplace full of meaningless qualifications - similar, for example, to a certain US course in real estate which even its own employees described as a rip-off.

So while I share David's excitement about the possibilities of online education, I believe that more needs to be done to ensure recognised standards that enable prospective students to choose a worthwhile course, and for employers to select the best and brightest graduates.

Any education course, whether online or offline, must demonstrate its utility, and one of the best ways of doing this is to show a direct link between learning and employment. At OpenClassrooms, for example, we work closely with businesses - including IBM and Google - to build courses and curricula which answer today's skills shortage in the workplace. We see our mission very simply: to enable students to master the skills they need to get jobs in the digital economy, and we believe the only way to do this effectively is to involve enterprises intimately in the development of our courses and learning pathways.

The second element that needs to be addressed is the personal one. David recognises that face-to-face interactions are valuable, but argues that many students "prefer online learning". When studying traditional university degrees, students' tend to receive around 14 hours of teaching time (Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institute survey). I see no reason why students learning online should be deprived of the same tutorials and mentorship that are available within "physical" degree programmes. In fact, I'd argue that mentoring is central to these courses' success, especially with highly technical subjects.

It's very easy to become frustrated when one is having difficulties with some aspect of the course, which can lead to high dropout rates (some online courses have a woeful completion rate of around five per cent). Having a dedicated mentor and a forum where students can share ideas with, or give encouragement to their peers is, I would say, more than just desirable - it's a necessity. Where students take a learning path with mentoring we see a completion rate of 87% showing just how powerful one-to-one mentoring is in supporting online learning.

The third aspect that must be addressed is accreditation. Deakin University's decision to deliver six postgraduate degree MOOCs in 2017 is a watershed moment that demonstrates online courses are now seen as a realistic alternative to traditional models of education. But more than this, we are seeing employers around the world recognising in depth online learning courses like our Bachelor's degree in web development for what they are - not a certificate for watching videos, but a demonstration of skills attainment and competence.

A checklist of best practices and accreditation for online education providers will help weed out poor course providers. But ultimately any course should be judged on its ability to secure you a job, so it is employers and recent graduates who are best placed to judge the quality of learning.

These are indeed exciting times for the world of education, and for those who are seeking new ways to equip themselves with the skills they need to succeed at life. We owe it to the students of the future - those currently at school, or stuck in jobs dreaming of a better, more fulfilling career - to give them a true choice, and the ability to access educational excellence.