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The viability of online higher education as an alternative to traditional classroom education

Online education is a viable and compelling alternative to traditional (meaning classroom-based, face-to-face) teaching for many reasons, which are summarized below.

But first, please allow me to establish my credibility in making such a claim: I hold multiple academic degrees, professional certificates and awards from universities and professional organizations in four different countries over the past 30 years. Prior to, and during this time, I have been a merchant marine officer, air traffic control specialist, business consultant, lecturer and entrepreneur, each of which has had its fair share of training and assessment as the basis for advancement. So, I write as an industry practitioner, lifelong student and practicing academic and entrepreneur, who has been at the back (receiving) end of training at each stage of my professional development, having to learn materials in order to successfully complete assessments and ensure advancement; and latterly, at the front (provision/delivery) end of training, where I have planned and delivered educational materials and assessments for all levels of higher education (HE) in the UK. Therefore, I, for one, find it strange that online education has been met with such a whirlwind of incredulousness, negative reviews, claims of ineffectiveness and even fakery and of not being the real deal.

“By a two-to-one margin (55 percent to 27 percent), most [American] college students say this experience learning online, has not made them ‘more likely to consider online education in the future’, and ‘two-thirds of current college students disagreed that online classes were as effective as in-person ones; just 15 percent agreed they were.’”

The intensifying arguments, mainly from students – current and prospective – parents, guardians and skeptical higher education institutions, around the viability of e-learning in higher education, are misguided for numerous reasons, seven of which I now summarize.

First, nobody would disagree that the cost of higher education is far too high, particularly in countries with a high penetration of private education (e.g. USA, Canada); so, students deserve a cost-effective alternative that would lead to the same conclusion.

Second, the provision of higher education has become far too complicated, with more attention focused on support elements and its secondary mission (research) than the core/primary mission of education, which will always be teaching and the transfer of knowledge to receptive, impressionable minds.

Third, besides being nearly universally available, online teaching technologies optimize resources of time, costs and personnel, by reducing the need for personnel whilst enabling greater access to a wider pool of experts and expertise. In a facilitated classroom of 60-plus students, our university mandates at least two tutors per room.

Fourth, by opting for e-learning, learners acquire the flexibility to self-pace, so it lends itself to non-traditional learners, who would not normally be able to study, and is simultaneously attractive to motivated learners, who could complete before the scheduled end of the course, if so motivated.

Fifth, if students are intrinsically motivated to learn/earn a higher education qualification, whether an award, certificate or degree, they could accelerate the process by proceeding at a pace that exceeds that of the program, thereby shortening the duration of studies and, importantly, also reducing their opportunity costs to do so.

Sixth, e-learning/online technologies combine real-time messaging, virtual learning environments (VLE), video conferencing, recording for playback, plus other functionality that are generally mature. Additionally, most regions and countries of the world have invested in the availability of broadband, which facilitates provision, enabling access to education by ensuring the content is accessible at all times. Twenty-four/seven availability enables asynchronous provision (tutor not there in real time), which should promote “attendance”, given that many students work whilst studying and find it difficult physically to attend classes, anyway.

Finally, the online environment provides a level of “anonymity”; once visuals (video/cameras) are disabled (often to facilitate broadband broadcast), students may feel less intimidated and more free to speak and engage, c.f. in a face-to-face situation in a crowded classroom, where many students, despite being repeatedly asked to raise questions during the session, wait until the end of class before approaching the tutor. Proof that the online environment works is below, which shows a 425 percent increase in the online educational services provided by Udemy since February.

I would be unfair, even biased, if I did not acknowledge the many social benefits of traditional higher education or declare my vested interest in online education. Nothing beats the learning opportunity one experiences through travel, generally, and from specifically interacting with different cultures. In no way can the virtual learning environment compete with the social interaction offered when physically co-located in the same space. But what I am arguing also, is that for a significant proportion of people in the world, the economic means to underwrite these valuable experiences, is simply not available. It is indeed a noble thing for a family to spend their life’s savings on an education – but why should they have to do this? This is one reason why we have established an online business school to address the stubborn proportion of prospective students, which is being ignored.

In closing, I would like to appeal first to the demand side of HE, namely students – current and prospective – to consider e-learning as a viable alternative to traditional education for the reasons I outlined. I wish also to reassure parents and guardians that they are likely to get better value for money by encouraging their children to study online. I wish also to reassure the skeptical supply side (institutions of higher learning and lecturers) who still question the viability of the online medium, that well-prepared tutors, well-conceived programs of studies, robust technological platforms and a flexibility to accommodate students in all time zones will be attractive to a growing number of students, not to mention those who are constrained economically.

I wish, finally, to appeal to employers in the public and private sector, that they, too, realize access to a greater pool of applicants who have been prevented from achieving accredited qualifications due to the barrier of opportunity costs, first to afford the studies and then to miss out on income generation possibilities. None of the below advanced countries would think to miss this opportunity.

I must also acknowledge free education, for which all of the above benefits apply, except obviously, the benefit of costs. It is interesting to note that costs can easily be replaced by the benefit of scope, variety and choice. For example, higher education is free in Germany, and even though Germany offers a comprehensive portfolio of educational courses, there may very well be courses that are not offered in-country or better, presented by institutions in other countries.

Of course, my appeals will fall onto deaf ears if students are motivated to move to countries to study for reasons other than to attain a qualification to advance career aspirations or to advance personal development and self-actualization through education. For the majority of students, however, there is absolutely no reason why an e-learning experience cannot be a compelling and viable alternative to face-to-face education, given its reduced opportunity costs; possible reduced duration of study; elimination of need to travel, accommodate, feed and clothe oneself; increased variety/choice; and accessibility at all hours of the day, all whilst retaining the ability to achieve the same level of accredited qualification.

I concur with Newton’s conclusion that “the ongoing onslaught of negative reviews of online education” could be better positioned “as a failure in planning and preparation” because online education, on the one hand, can be “an insurance policy against the future disruptions, that are bound to happen; after all, when traditional classrooms can’t be that way, the only alternative to online is nothing”. On the other hand, we cannot and should not neglect the many that simply cannot mobilize the finances to enjoy the full educational experience.

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