As Fees Increase, are Online Degrees the Future of UK Ed?

As British students face the daunting prospect of paying up to £9,000 a year for higher education, there are increasing opportunities to learn online for much less, and in many cases free, writes Emma Barnett at the Telegraph.

Earlier this month, Stanford University launched its registration for its free online artificial intelligence course.

So far 53,000 people have signed up to the course that is made up of two lectures a week, digital discussions and a weekly piece of homework that must be completed in order for all online students to pass.

"We have been blown away by how much interest there has been in the course," says Thrun.

"We taught this class last year to 177 students, but we wanted to open it up to those who cannot access this type of education where they live – places like Indonesia and Africa…However, we have had lots of people sign up from the US and the UK who are looking for a new way to be educated that is not as expensive or time-consuming. Now we have 53,000 students."

Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of Leeds University, says that advantage needs to be made of the possibilities of digital learning, but online learning should only be supplementary and cannot replace the value of the full university experience but.

"At Leeds University, we don't just want people to learn facts, we want them to be at the frontier of learning and discovering new things about their subject and the world. This can only happen through having full access to a university's facilities and also via teamwork. These types of experiences are incredibly difficult to reproduce online," he explains.

Arthur adds:

"At the end of day it's my honest belief that I can't provide students with the same type of free critical free thinking through online-only content. It's analogous to going to a concert over just watching it or music videos online. People haven't stopped attending concerts because they can access live content online – the live experience is so much better and the same is true in terms of teaching at university."

The Stanford experiment is not the only example of how the internet is being used in university education.

The Open University has a ‘Learning Space' service that allows people to try more than 600 free online course – each taking between one and 50 hours to study.

For four years Apple has offered iTunes U, an online educational catalogue, designed for people who want to learn but are constantly on the move.

More than 800 universities throughout the world have active iTunes U sites, with more than 350,000 audio and video files having been uploaded from universities around the globe – including China, Mexico and Japan, writes Barnett.

Last year a study by Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, found that traditional university courses could become "the preserve of an elite as growing numbers of students take on-line degrees."

Prof Geoffrey Crossick, vice-chancellor of the University of London, said at the time that the current system of delivering higher education was "no longer financially sustainable".

In the UUK report, he said the number of flexible courses – including part-time study, on-the-job training and internet-based qualifications – would "explode" in the future.

This would lead to a drop in the proportion of students taking full-time degrees and living in traditional student accommodation, he said, an experience that was likely to be limited to those at top universities, writes Barnett.

Matthew Tabor

Matthew Tabor

Matthew is a prolific, independent voice in the national education debate. He is a tireless advocate for high academic standards from pre-K through graduate school, fiscal sense and personal responsibility. He values parents’ and families’ rights and believes in accountability for teachers, administrators, politicians and all taxpayer-funded education entities. With a unique background that includes work in higher education, executive recruiting, professional sport and government, Matthew has consulted on new media and communication strategies for a broad range of clients. He writes the blog “Education for the Aughts” at , has contributed to National Journal’s ‘Expert’ blog for Education , and interacts with the education community on Twitter and Google+.
09 6, 2011
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