More people signed up for Harvard’s online courses in a single year than have attended the actual university in its 377 years of existence.

That staggering fact alone indicates the massive, irreversible change that’s happening – happened – in education.

The decline of the one-to-one university tutorial with sherry on the side has been matched by the explosion in online learning, a global business that Forbes says will be worth US$107 billion in 2015.

E-learning is a broad category, encompassing everything from Harvard degrees to online corporate training, the latter market is expected to grow by 17 per cent a year to 2017; apparently 77 per cent of US companies now provide online corporate training to their employees.

In the UK more than 20 universities now give free online courses under the aegis of FutureLearn.

When Edinburgh University offered its own MOOCs (massive open online courses) through a US network it quickly had more than 300,000 students sign up – more than nine times the number actually attending the university.

Coursera, which started as an alliance between Stanford University and two dozen others and now boasts 122 partners, claims it has more than 14 million students signed up.

All those millions of students – about two-thirds of whom don’t live in the US – have their ➝progress tracked, logged, studied, and at the end gain ‘a statement of accomplishment’ from the course tutor.

Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the UK’s Open University, a leader in distance education, has said: “Time and again we have seen the disruptive impact the internet can have on industries – driving innovation and enhancing the customer experience.

I have no doubt MOOCs will do the same for education.” Online education is not a particularly new phenomenon.

In the US around one million full-time students are enrolled in distance learning programmes, rising from less than 10 per cent in 2002 to more than 30 per cent today.

What’s distinct about e-learning today is scale; we are poised on the cusp of a truly revolutionary change, driven by several factors: demand for education, insufficient supply of places to study, and cost.

The biggest markets for both commercially oriented and degree courses by far are India and China, where conventional university tuition costs are prohibitively expensive.

The rise of MOOCs

Around 25 per cent of the US population is enrolled in some form of post-school education programme – making accessible quality instruction online an efficiency that is only now being understood.

Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor widely created with inventing the term ‘disruptive innovation’, said that disruptive technologies find success in markets where “the alternative is nothing”. In his view e-learning is just going to keep on spreading and improving.

MOOCs generally arose out of universities’ interest in computer intelligence. The ultimate goal might be software that maps an individual’s knowledge and offers e-learning plans specifically designed to plug the gaps, whatever those might be.

But while work on the technology to develop that kind of customised individual e-learning is proceeding, e-learning’s biggest potential is surely the chance of bringing world-class education to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

Take, for example, Kepler, a non-profit university programme for the developing world, which has a pilot campus in Rwanda. It has what it calls the ‘ambitious target’ of providing an “American-accredited degree, a world class education… for thousands of students for around US$1,000 tuition a year.” Naturally there are numerous entrepreneurs involved with e-learning, such as Shai Reshef, who is credited with starting the first online university outside the US in 2001, based in the Netherlands. His creation, the University of the People, aims to provide high quality online education for everyone, free of all but the smallest of charges (to sit exams).

There may be drawbacks to e-learning and certainly Christensen has his critics, such as Jill Lepore, a staff writer at The New Yorker.In a piece called The Disruption Machine she wrote that “disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror… Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticise a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.”

What lies ahead

In a thoughtful piece on Quartz Rob Huntington argues that “it is ultimately the student and teacher working together that yields deep learning and growth”.

True enough; and perhaps a video course on cryptography (as offered by Coursera) attended by thousands might not be great at personal mentorship. But once the jack is out of the box it’s difficult to put it back.Executives of the next generation would do well to prepare themselves to be able to scrutinise CVs not just from familiar universities, but from MOOCs everywhere – you wouldn’t want to miss out on talent just because the degree isn’t from Harvard.

Executives of the next generation would do well to prepare themselves to be able to scrutinise CVs not just from familiar universities, but from MOOCs everywhere – you wouldn’t want to miss out on talent just because the degree isn’t from Harvard.

Online learning facts

  • The market for online learning products hit US$42.7 billion in 2014 and is expected to pass US$50 billion by 2018 [Source: University World News, ‘Huge Growth in e-learning in Asia’, 2014]
  • Asia’s desire for online degree programmes growing faster – at 17.3 per cent – than anywhere else
  • Growth in Nepal and Pakistan rose to more than 30 per cent in 2014
  • Most Ivy League universities have fully adopted MOOCs but many top UK universities have preferred to retain their traditional teaching methods [Source: BBC, ‘Massive Open Online Courses: Threat or Opportunity?”, 2013]
  • SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) delivered on MOOC-like platforms have also proved their effectiveness: According to Anant Agarwal, CEO of Harvard’s EdX, “60 per cent of students at San José State University passed its traditional electronics course, but when a SPOC was introduced the pass rate rose to 91 per cent
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