Where Online Learning Goes Next

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Charles W. Eliot, who served as President of Harvard University for a record 40 years, charted a roadmap for education in his seminal essay, The New Education. Written in 1869, it made the case for continuously updating how and what students learn, so education could evolve in step with society. That approach remains just as relevant today, 150 years later.

Today’s educators have to rethink higher education for a world that’s being overturned by technology. As Farnam Jahanian, President of Carnegie Mellon University, recently observed, “The unprecedented pace of societal change makes the need for reform more urgent. There is great pressure on higher education as the engine of progress in a knowledge-based economy.”

Technology is transforming jobs and skills faster than organizations or people can adapt. Coursera’s Global Skills Index 2019 found that two-thirds of the world’s population is falling behind in critical skills. Research from the World Economic Forum suggests that the core skills required to perform most roles will change by 42% on average by 2022. At this level of disruption, companies are scrambling to identify and source the skills they need to stay competitive. The availability of key skills is now one of the top three business threats for CEOs globally, according to a recent PwC survey.

As the gatekeepers of knowledge and stewards of human capital, universities have to play a major role in preparing a skilled global workforce. Doing so will require an ecosystem-oriented mindset, using online offerings to extend reach and establish partnerships with other universities and content providers. For that matter, it will require much greater investment than the 3% of overall expenditure currently allocated to technology in the education sector. Much like industries, universities will need digital solutions to solve for the big problems in higher education.

Higher education for the people, at global scale

By harnessing emerging technologies, universities can reach beyond campus walls to empower diverse learners at global scale. It begins with embracing stackable, online learning, which provides flexibility and affordability that increases access to university curricula and allows students to engage in smaller chunks of learning before committing to larger degree programs. Technology-powered formats like mobile-friendly experiences meet the learner where they are, enabling more seamless transitions for those entering a new learning environment or picking up where they left off. At a more advanced level, embracing AI-powered adaptive learning will enable universities to personalize education for millions for more effective outcomes.

Universities have already seen immediate and powerful results from online degree programs. Top MBA programs such as the Global Master of Business Administration from Macquarie UniversityUniversity of Illinois at Urbana Champaign iMBA,  Kelley School of Business Online MBA and Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper) online MBA , in particular, have embraced online learning to increase accessibility and affordability for working professionals. These programs also offer stackable learning, such as a short set of online courses, that enable learners to close specific competency gaps or add specific skills to meet immediate career goals.

By embracing technology in its many forms, universities will be able to offer life-changing access to millions more globally. But that’s not the only prize. Through deeper engagements and local industry partnerships world-wide, top colleges will be able to create a virtuous cycle that advances research and collaborative thinking to tackle some of the most pressing challenges we face today.

A game-changing university ecosystem 

It will take a global community working together to scale access to higher education. Universities can be the center of this revolution by using technology to join forces and create a shared learning ecosystem, supplementing their own curriculum with top courses from other institutions. Last year, Tec de Monterrey in Mexico, Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile came together for La Tríada — a first-of-its-kind collaboration that enables their combined 150,000 students to share access to 100 online courses available from the three institutions. The potential advantages go beyond shared curricula. Universities could also pool resources to launch a common credit or grading system, to create virtual collaborative learning spaces, or to combine insights from a larger network to shape the direction of programs.

Technology-driven collaboration will also help alleviate faculty shortages plaguing institutions worldwide. Earlier this year, Inside Higher Ed reported on a nationwide shortage of computer science professors, describing it as “a supply and demand story, but on steroids.” In India, faculty shortages are impeding the impact of top institutions — The Indian Institute of Technology, a leading technology institution, has a 35% faculty shortfall. Digitally-powered ecosystems could seamlessly connect content experts from academia or industry to deliver custom learning programs for students anywhere in the world. Universities would be able to leverage the best minds in the industry or open the doors to online faculty exchanges between institutions.

Technology ecosystems also accelerate research among universities. For example, Quartolio, an AI-powered research platform, is helping researchers across universities like Berkeley, MIT, and Stanford to connect the dots and discover cross-discipline insights in their research areas.

Turning industry-ready

Stanford and Silicon Valley’s intertwined history exemplify what’s possible when industry and academia come together. According to a PitchBook report, Stanford had the highest number of entrepreneurs — 1,178 — in an undergrad program globally in 2018 (with 1,015 companies and $28.84 billion in capital raised). As skill demands in the workplace continue to evolve quickly, we need greater industry and university interdependency. Institutions like Mines ParisTech are leading the way with strong ties to businesses and more than 100 major industrial partners. In addition to research synergy, courses include internships and study projects with partner companies.

As talent shortages grow worldwide, institutions, and enterprises must chart partnerships that equip learners with employable skills. One standout example is Google IT Support Professional Certificate’s alignment with 25 community colleges in the U.S. to offer the IT training program as part of their curriculum. With more than 215,000 open IT support roles, this collaboration addresses a major skills shortage. Google closes the loop by connecting learners in the program with top employers hiring for IT support jobs, among them Walmart and Bank of America. Widening the impact, The University of London and Northeastern University also offer credit towards an online bachelor’s degree for learners who complete the program.

The mission for higher education institutions is changing in tandem with the workplace, with reach, impact, and relevance being as important as ever. Universities are being called on to serve more diverse learners on a massive scale. They have to create credentials that catch the attention of employers that are increasingly focused on skills over traditional degrees. They have to create shorter pathways to new skills. And alongside foundational knowledge, they have to offer the flexibility for learners to upskill throughout their careers since lifelong learning is the only way forward. Technology will be the link through this change, revolutionizing what we know as higher ed