Offering Online Degrees Should Be About Access, Not Money
Online degrees certainly have the potential to widen access to higher education and beyond. Surmounting travel and living costs, they enable students from all over the world to take part in the course of their dreams. Many top universities, such as Harvard, offer both free and paid for credit-level online courses that learners can subscribe to no matter where in the world they are. As well as MOOCs (massive open online courses), institutions are also offering whole online degrees. However, for many higher education institutions, the motivation behind this explosion in online degrees is not widening access but something more materialistic: making money.
There is no denying that online degrees can generate a lot of revenue for higher education institutions. Enrolment in these courses has been growing steadily for more than a decade and a half, with students attracted by their flexibility, their convenience, and their (usually) lower tuition fees when compared to traditional on-campus learning. Online courses are typically cheaper for universities to run, and there are also advantages such as the fact that ‘class’ sizes can be larger: more learners can be taught simultaneously online than they can be in a physical classroom. All of this makes online courses a relatively efficient way for universities to earn money.
But is earning money actually the most important reason for a university to provide online degrees? Surely a more ethical motivation to focus on would be widening access to degree level education to students in groups that traditionally face barriers to tertiary education. One example is learners in developing countries who are prevented from attending university due to poverty, poor infrastructure, or lack of support from their family. Another example is single parents, particularly people who became parents as teenagers and did not attend university as a result: online degrees enable these learners to combine education with the demands of work and parenting flexibly.
One thing to beware of, though, is in introducing and/or widening a hierarchy between online courses and campus-based courses. The latter are often considered to be the ‘real’ option when it comes to tertiary education. Thus, it is crucial to ensure that online courses provide the same quality of education as campus-based courses do. How about your institution? Does it offer online degree courses, and what do you think about their quality, ability to widen access, and their cost-effectiveness when compared to traditional campus-based courses?