The world we live in is changing rapidly. More people now have access to a mobile phone than have access to a working toilet and by 2030 it is estimated that 75% of the global workforce will be Digital Natives. In education this raises big questions. For example, will students still need to learn and retain hard information when so much of it is now available at the touch of a button? And does this matter? If everyone from school children to government officials is getting their headline information from Google, as we know many of them are, how do we ensure that people are learning effectively?
In light of these questions, there has been a lot of attention given recently to the use of digital technologies in teaching and learning, and the extent to which these technologies are shaking up the UK’s higher education (HE) sector. However, the sector is still undecided as to whether MOOCs are the ‘Napster moment’ for HE and the end of the university as a physical institution, a solution to skills shortages and widening participation, or simply a marketing tool for universities to reach out to more students in an increasingly competitive global HE market place.
“Online learning can play a part in a country’s economic success by broadening access to higher education.”
Part of this indecision is due to confusion between Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and more traditional forms of online learning. But there are important differences between the two. For a start, MOOCs have so far been operating from a separate platform with ‘star’ lecturers used to entice participants (David Attenborough is a voice on one of the FutureLearn MOOCs, for example). This compares to more traditional online learning which is continuing to develop alongside MOOCs, has tended to be managed by individual institutions and offers accredited learning in line with more traditional campus-based courses.
“Social and economic success will rely on harnessing the online environment.”
It is clear that an increasingly competitive and technology-rich world will rely on graduates having communication skills and a positive attitude as well as academic knowledge. And that online learning can play a part in a country’s economic success by broadening access to higher education and by making that education more tailored and engaging for a wide range of different students. But it is not yet clear that MOOCs in their current guise (i.e. exclusively online) can act as the solution alone. Social and economic success, defined as ensuring fair access and full utilisation of human capital, will rely on harnessing the online environment to enrich and support face-to-face teaching, and vice versa.