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Online learning can enhance soft power, universities told

Online learning can be a powerful asset not only to universities’ individual funding and internationalisation strategies, but also countries’ soft power and the reputation of their higher education sector as a whole.

K. Holly Shiflett of Wiley Education Services and Rajay Naik of Keypath Education speak at the OBHE conference in London. Photo: The PIE News.

"There is a fundamental difference between a free, unaccredited course, and a degree-accredited programme. We must make sure that we never make that distinction unclear"

This was one of the key takeaways from a session on online learning held at OBHE‘s conference last month, ‘The New Landscape of Higher Education’, where experts discussed how technology, TNE, pathways and other innovation are developing and shaping the sector.

“Online learning provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to continue to be that beacon in markets around the world”

Online learning can enable the UK to retain its reputation as a world leader in education, according to Rajay Naik, CEO (Europe) of education marketing and online learning service Keypath Education – formerly called Plattform.

“Online learning provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to continue to be that beacon in markets around the world,” he said.

However, Naik reminded delegates that in order to capitalise on these opportunities, HEIs must be rigorous both in upholding the quality of their online programmes and in communicating their value to students and employers.

“There is a fundamental difference between a free, short, unaccredited course and a formal, fee-paying, degree-accredited programme that delivers a significant certificate or degree at the end of it, and we must make sure that we never make that distinction unclear or blurred,” he said.

“This isn’t online learning 1.0; these are really immersive, engaging experiences,” he continued, adding that this requires “substantial capital”.

“For those that believe that [the cost of online delivery] is dramatically lower than a face-to-face experience, that’s often not the case,” he cautioned.

Making online programmes successful requires not only financial investment, however, but also a commitment to working with academics to ensure that they understand the aims and advantages of implementing a new model.

In fact, faculty commitment is a key determiner as to how successful online distance degree programmes will be, noted K. Holly Shiflett, solutions director, global education at Wiley Education Services, along with brand recognition, market focus and strategic alignment.

With these factors in mind, offering high quality online degrees can enable universities to reach people who might not otherwise be interested in coming to the UK.

“For those that believe that the cost of online delivery is dramatically lower than a face-to-face experience, that’s often not the case”

Naik cited one of Keypath’s partner institutions, Coventry University, which has enrolled two Saudi princes to its upcoming course.

He added: “If you’re in a market like India, you want to stay in your job, you want to stay in that country with 8% growth… but being able to do so whilst studying at a world-class university, that creates a massive opportunity for us to not only do more around business and internationalisation, but also around our soft power influence.”

The assertion that many online students want to stay in work is backed up by the findings of Learning House’s Online College Students 2015 report, said Shiflett, which found that 75% of online students seek further education to get a job, change careers, earn a promotion or keep up to date with skills.

Course accreditation is helping to make this an attractive option by bolstering the reputation of online learning as a delivery model, she added.

“There is an increasingly regulated environment in the US, largely related to for-profits and federal financial aid,” she said.

“Employers don’t care so much about whether it was an online degree; they care about the name of the school.”

In fact, some employers are even beginning to see advantages in hiring students who have studied online over those who have undergone a traditional university experience, according to Naik.

“Very often what [employers] say is ‘When I see an online student, I regard those students as more desirable than face-to-face students, the reason being that I know what those students would have gone through to get their experience,'” he explained.

“To do this alongside your family, alongside your work, takes incredible effort.”


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