News Analysis Focus for 2017 – Online Higher Education in 30 Countries

The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education's (OBHE) remit is a big one - the multitude of transnational higher education models, the plethora of commercial players active in the sector, and the complexities of online learning. This “borderless” higher education is dynamic, exciting and interrelated but can become unwieldy.

Moreover, the OBHE attempts to cover developments worldwide.

It makes sense for the OBHE to go deep on specific topics. This allows us to accumulate intelligence, and add value for our members.

In 2017, we are going to pay particular attention to online learning. Our definition is broad, encompassing fully online degree programmes as well as blended and hybrid models; and online delivery as a component of conventional campus courses. We are interested in online learning offered by mainstream universities and colleges, but also the activities of other kinds of providers. Online learning is the latest form of distance and open learning, which has a long history in many parts of the world.

Online learning is the latest form of distance and open learning, which has a long history in many parts of the world.

Enthusiasm and fear about online technology was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the OBHE. In the late 1990s, the dotcom boom included the rise of so-called e-learning, the promise that new technology could dramatically widen access to higher education, enhance the student experience and lower costs. New delivery platforms, and new kinds of institutions, both within and beyond traditional universities and colleges, were conceived and launched.

Then came the dotcom crash and many bold plans came to nothing. But in the intervening years, forms of online learning, as feature, supplement and alternative to traditional higher education, have steadily won adoption and favour. The underlying technology has become more interactive and multifaceted. Bandwidth has expanded dramatically, permitting an explosion of video and simulation, and auguring virtual and augmented reality.

A wide range of institutions are involved, both traditional and non-traditional, non-profit and forprofit; and online learning increasingly plays a role at undergraduate and postgraduate level, in many disciplines and for all types of student. Fully online degrees have become popular, in many countries, among adult learners, keen to balance study with work and family. Much online programme activity is domestic but cross-border delivery, perhaps the most inflated promise in the early days of online learning, is beginning to gain traction. MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses, are a recent example of innovation and success, if also more hype.

Our goal is to offer high quality, disinterested commentary on this and other borderless higher education topics where rhetoric is rife but perspective can be in short supply.

Today there is both a healthy realism about online learning, but also years of hands-on experience. There is a renewed optimism about what might be possible, as well as institutions and countries that continue to take a dim view, even banning online degrees in some cases. Many questions remain about how online does - and might - impact access, quality and cost.

As institutions, companies, regulators and governments take a fresh look at their options  good data on the scale and scope of online learning, particularly across countries, is hard to find.

This is the OBHE’s raison d’être - a borderless higher education topic that is of mainstream interest in a growing number of countries but contends with complexity and nuance, poor data and hype. Few other organisations are paying sustained attention to this topic on an international basis. And, of course, the OBHE is not for or against online learning. Our goal is to offer high quality, impartial commentary on this and other borderless higher education topics where rhetoric is rife but perspective can be in short supply.

In 2017, we will write articles about online higher education, broadly defined, in 30 countries around the world to shine some light on the scale and scope of what is happening, common patterns and different approaches. At the end of the year, we will produce a report analysing what we’ve found and what it says about the health and direction of online higher education around the world.

Each article will seek to answer questions such as:

  • Where does online learning - however defined locally - fit into the national higher education system?
  • Is there any data about enrolments, student demographics and the institutions involved? Is this a growth area? What types of online learning are visible?
  • Why do higher education institutions pursue online learning, and what is the status of the delivery mode? How is success judged, and how is online learning regulated and quality assured? Is the national government interested in online learning?
  • Is there any evidence of cross-border delivery, both into the country and out? What is known about the balance between individuals enrolling in programmes across borders versus institutions actively marketing internationally? Does online learning impact student mobility?
  • Is there much online learning activity outside of formal higher education - e.g. professional development, MOOCs? What is its significance?

In many countries, data about online higher education will be patchy, intelligence about activity fragmented, and many trends will be nascent, but that is precisely why cross-country comparisons and OBHE analysis is needed. What is the state of the evidence, and what conclusions may be drawn at this stage? We do not pretend that we will find all the answers, but the search will be very interesting and useful.

The country list will include major markets such as the United States, China and India. We will look at selected countries in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Leveraging our core team of analysts, and our associates around the world, the OBHE is well-placed to take the lead on improving understanding of online higher education internationally.

In 2017, we will continue to write and publish on other topics, but online learning will be our main focus.

Want to know more about online learning? Join our mailing list.

Richard Garrett

Richard Garrett

Richard, Director at the OBHE, is based in Boston, Massachusetts. Richard has more than 18 years' experience researching higher education trends worldwide, particularly online learning, non-traditional students, internationalization, and commercial activity.

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