“One of the biggest transformations in education came about as a result of the ubiquity of [the] internet in our lives,” says Sanjay Sarma, director of online learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Business schools have adopted the online delivery method, with a host of their programs being flipped online and Moocs being launched.
Many of these courses are populated in part by educated and employed users seeking part-time study, but providers have sought to expand learning and bring educational to all.
The web has enabled underrepresented groups around the world such as women, youth, the disabled and citizens in rural communities to gain quality education.
“Connectivity is not a luxury for the rich – rather, it is the most powerful tool mankind has ever had at its disposal to bridge development gaps in areas like health, education, environmental management and gender empowerment,” says Dr Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, the UN’s agency for ICT.
According to UN estimates there were 77 countries in 2014 where over 50% of the population was online, up from 70 in 2013.
This connectivity has enabled learning technology providers to roll out courses to the masses.
EdX and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labor run an open-platform Mooc portal designed to bridge the gap between education and employment in the oil-rich Gulf state.
The University of the People, a non-profit internet university, provides education online for refugees, and in collaboration with Microsoft offers scholarships for African youths that see them mentored by Microsoft employees.
The group, partnered with top US universities including Yale University and New York University, will also grant 1,000 high school graduates in South Africa spots on its online degrees.
Youth unemployment is a particular problem across the African continent with the figure rising to 25% in South Africa in 2014, according to a labour force survey conducted by Statistics South Africa, the country’s official statistics service.
“The right to a quality education mustn’t be a matter of one’s geographical or financial situation; access to education must be an equal and basic right for all, rather than a privilege for the few,” says UoPeople president Shai Reshef.
Guokr Mooc Academy has opened up learning to thousands in China, providing an access route to foreign education for lower income students. Founded after an injection of funding by TBP, a venture capital fund in Shanghai, it has grown to have more than 2,000 courses online.
Like many distance learning providers, Coursera has also sought to expand into new markets. The number of Chinese students on its digital platform has quadrupled in a year.
EdX has rapidly expanded its Asian base, signing on 15 new university partners in 2013 including Seoul National University in South Korea and Tsinghua University in China.
“We are moving forward with our mission to reimagine education,” says Anant Agarwal, president of edX.
Udemy provides online content for Oracle Corporation, the computer tech company. Coursera has announced new partnerships with Mastercard, AT&T and Shell.
Bank of New York Mellon is poised to roll out a series of digital learning finance courses to educate some of its 51,000 global employees on capital flows and liquidity.
“There’s a huge opportunity to adapt online education and take it beyond its academic roots to help learners and employers close the skills gap,” says Daphne Koller, president of Coursera.
The company and rivals like edX and FutureLearn are experts in providing free courses known as Moocs, but full-service online universities have cropped up and are gaining accreditation from educational bodies.
Students who would once look to bricks and mortar universities and business school degrees like MBAs are migrating to the cyberworld.
A recent survey by UK-based education marketing consultancy CarringtonCrisp found that three-quarters of prospective business school students would prefer to shape study around their lifestyles or work.
EdX and Coursera offer management-related courses online, charging for entry, or for certificates. UoPeople and 2U offer full business management degrees taught entirely online.
UoPeople in particular has managed to combat online programs’ biggest problem: drop outs.
According to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, of one million people who signed up for a Coursera course from June 2012 to June 2013, only 4% completed their classes.
Now, employment prospects are increasingly the priority. Mooc platforms that offer paid-for certificates encourage students to post them on networking sites such as LinkedIn.
“We’re planning to create a gallery of the projects that students complete as part of their coursework,” says Daphne at Coursera. "This will give students a way to present their work."
This plays into the make-up of Mooc cohorts. University of Pennsylvania researchers estimate that of 34,779 students taking Coursera courses, more than 80% had a two or four year degree, and 44% had some postgraduate education.
Yet not all companies see the value, particularly when fishing for graduates of business school programs.
According to a report by AMBA, the business education accrediting body, recruiters still “do not consider job seekers from online business programs to be of the same calibre as those that have graduated from a face-to-face” programs.
There are further concerns that online degrees and Moocs represent a threat to traditional degrees, but heads of leading academic institutions increasingly deploy them as marketing tools, rather than fearing a potential loss of students.
“Many schools have been using them to create a complementary, well-rounded educational experience,” says Bernard Garrette, associate dean of the MBA at HEC Paris, a leading French business school.
But ultimately, online education has opened up the world to new opportunity, and this phenomenon will continue to gain ground as providers secure investment and new partnerships.
For some providers there is also increasingly a business opportunity. In 2014, 2U listed on the Nasdaq with a market cap of $700 million. Others would seem to agree – this month its shares were up as much as 7% on its debut.