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Halt the Rapid Decline in Part-Time Higher Education

In recent years, provision by universities of lifelong learning and professional education has been in sharp decline. Earlier this year, for instance, the Rinnooy Kan Commission in the Netherlands found that part-time higher education is undergoing a dramatic decline.

In recent years, provision by universities of lifelong learning and professional education has been in sharp decline. Earlier this year, for instance, the Rinnooy Kan Commission in the Netherlands found that part-time higher education is undergoing a dramatic decline.

Between 2001 and 2011, the number of Dutch students in part-time higher education plummeted from 19,000 to fewer than 10,000. Universities of all kinds are tending to focus on full-time education for young people.

This is a worrying development for several reasons. For instance, businesses are in constant need of training and refresher courses for their employees, particularly in the engineering and technology sectors. People are also working for longer.

Since more people are retiring between the age of 67 and 70, rather than around 60, a higher education qualification now needs to last for as long as 45 years. At the same time, knowledge in this sector is developing increasingly rapidly and international competition is growing, also in the high-tech sector. For that reason some businesses use their own internal training institutes for refresher courses and in-service training, as the Airbus Academy does for its employees across the world.

Cutting-edge knowledge is developed at higher educational institutions and it is here that I envisage a key role and important opportunities. This includes at Delft University of Technology, where I am Vice President for Education and Operations, where we systematically invest in the development of online education which has the potential to reinvigorate adult higher education.

Roland Berger Strategy Consultants has conducted a study into the role of online education in corporate learning. In the report published in July, the firm highlights the fact that corporate learning programmes are among the fastest-growing sectors.

More than half of all European companies already offer their staff online training courses. Globally, the e-learning market is worth 96 billion US dollar and that figure is set to double by 2018.

However, there is only a limited offering of corporate learning at an academic level. MBAs are a positive exception to this.

In addition, for certain professional groups, such as doctors, refresher training is compulsory. There are hardly any corporate learning programmes in technology at an academic level, neither regular courses on campus nor online courses.

Although online education is not a goal in itself, it does have the advantage of being scalable and flexible, enabling students to study where and when it suits them. This makes it easier to fit them in with work and other activities.

Roland Berger is not the only one to raise these issues. Dutch Minister Bussemaker also highlighted these advantages in a letter on open and online higher education that she sent to the Dutch House of Representatives in January.

In the last few years, Delft University of Technology and other universities have gained valuable experience of online education, including in the form of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). We have found that there is a clear need for this kind of education in wide-ranging areas including cyber security, aviation technology and water management.

The sheer size of MOOCs, with thousands or even tens of thousands of students, means that a treasure trove of data on learning behaviour has been collected. This not only applies to the Delft courses, but also to the other MOOCs offered by our partners within edX.

By analysing this data, we are increasingly discovering how people learn. In alliance with Leiden University, Erasmus University and other leading universities worldwide, Delft intends to conduct research into this.

Lecturers have already learned a lot about what works and what does not work in online education from feedback provided by MOOC students. For example, an interesting observation made during our MOOC on 'Solar Energy' was that students work more effectively in a group than if they try to complete an online course individually.

This was seen with a group of 38 students from a company in Fiji, who took the MOOC Introduction to Water Treatment as a group, and with students who found each other through Facebook groups. We do not yet know why these students are more successful.

Are they more motivated? Does the group process keep them on track? Observations like these, together with further research, will enable us to continue to improve our provision of online education whilst also improving campus education at the same time.

Dutch universities have a good reputation worldwide, their ICT infrastructure is first-class and the government provides incentives for online education. In other words, Dutch universities are in an excellent position to play a role in the development of online education for highly qualified professionals.

At Delft, this is something that we will be continuing to shape in the years ahead at the Extension School. In it, we will begin to offer increasing numbers of our campus courses also online as refresher training for professionals.

We will also develop customised training courses for businesses, not only in the Netherlands, but also internationally in the future. The rapid decline in part-time education must be brought to a halt. If my colleagues and I have our way, it may also be set to have a prosperous future.

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