Recent reports that GCSEs and A-levels will be taken online within the next ten years have sparked an industry wide debate. David Hancock, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, argued that an online model could replace the 'deeply flawed' system the UK has in place today.
However, concerns have already been raised about the impact of this change. Last week, The Independent reported that "questions had to be asked about whether the change would give a more authentic picture of what the student knew and understood."
Regardless of how this debate unfolds, it is inevitable that more educational systems and programmes will continue to migrate online. This is supported by the fact that the market for e-learning continues to grow exponentially. A survey by Ambient Insight Research has showed that the worldwide market for e-learning products was £20.5 billion in 2010 and is expected to rise to over £31 billion by 2015.
Educational providers need to embrace change to stay relevant
There is no debating the fact that technology today gives more people more choice than ever before. Logically, this has implications on how people learn. That is why educational systems, including GCSEs and A-levels, need to evolve to stay relevant. If not, the consequences could be dire. In The Innovative University, published in 2011, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen argues that educators could lose to competitors if they fail to embrace new technologies.
The need for change is nothing new in the education sector. Neither is the concept of distance learning, which dates as far back as 1728. But staying on top of this change can be challenging. After all, there is a great deal of flexible learning options for educators to provide and for students to choose from. From online learning, involving the delivery of education via the internet, to the broader term of e-learning which includes all forms of educational technology in learning and teaching. Used in conjunction with face-to-face learning, a blended learning approach has also been widely accepted as a viable solution for both students and teachers alike.
Ultimately it will be the diverse needs of students that dictate the future of online learning. According to the University of Oxford, who conducted an in-depth 'Study of UK Online Learning', students attracted to online versus offline modes of study often have very different requirements.
"Evidence from the interviews indicates that the needs and expectations of ODL (Online Distance Learning) students are distinctly different from traditional campus-based undergraduate students," the study revealed. "The clearest trend to emerge from this study is the predominance of ODL courses with a vocational focus. Of these courses, by far the largest group are postgraduate-level programmes aimed at professionals."
All students should weigh the benefits of online versus offline choices
At London School of Marketing, the world's largest provider of marketing courses, our success depends on offering programmes in online, offline and blended formats. Which format our students prefer is a matter of personal choice, as each provides different benefits. While campus-based courses offer a fixed schedule and more social interaction, online courses offer students the freedom to set their own pace, and the ability to study around work, family and social commitments.
When conducting informal research among our global student base, the key benefits online learning affords is flexibility and affordability. Online courses can often be taken at anytime, which means students can design the course around their lives, versus the other way around. Additionally, all students, and particularly international ones, can dramatically reduce the overall cost of their education. Other benefits to online learning include the fact that applications are made more easily, assignments can be submitted more conveniently and online support and resources are widely accessible.
Recognising the quality of an online programme is paramount
There are fewer barriers to entry when it comes to online courses, which is why it is important to be wary of quality. Accreditation identifies a qualification as valid and is an assurance of quality. It also means that the educational establishment has met all the requirements to provide excellence. It is also worth finding out the percentage of students that have graduated. A pass rate calculates the number of students enrolled compared to the percentage of students who graduate, and low graduation rates are not a good sign. The credibility of your course is the most important thing to consider as this is what future employers will look at.
Despite the inevitable growth of online learning, it is unlikely that it will replace more traditional offline learning any time soon. In a 2011 report by the Higher Education Strategy Associates, students were asked about their views on e-learning, in which 80% said they preferred to attend in-person lectures than watch online. However, in our cash-strapped, ever competitive world, online study will continue to be a smart move for people who want to improve their prospects more flexibly for less.