Powered by new tech, online learning sites have taken universities by storm. Offering courses on everything from medieval history to data science, platforms like ALISON and Lynda.com, owned by LinkedIn, are used by most of the top schools, from Stanford to Shanghai Jiao Tong.
“We will see a lot of innovation in delivery models and program features over the next five to ten years,” says William Lamb, dean of Babson College, the business school.
There remain concerns over interactivity and employer recognition. But with growing time and cost pressure on students, most education leaders agree digital will play a part, if not a starring role, in the industry’s future.
“A degree is not terminal anymore and it doesn’t guarantee employment anymore, or a high level job,” says Anne Trumbore, director of Wharton Online. “People need to become free agents with their training. And that’s where online learning really comes in.”
HBX, Harvard Business School’s digital learning initiative, is bringing Harvard’s famous case study teaching to the cyber world. Officially launched this year, HBX Live, a real-time virtual classroom, got a surge of media attention.
Patrick Mullane, HBX’s executive director, says the platform is trying to “reimagine business education in a technology-driven world”.
HBX CORe, which teaches fundamentals in business analytics, economics and accounting, has attracted 5,000 participants from 72 countries.
Ratul Banerjee, an ESADE MBA who took HBX CORe, says it’s one of the best platforms he has ever seen. “It lets you connect with peers in your cohort through the online system, making the learning collaborative.”
The Silicon Valley start-up has taken Moocs, or massive open online courses, from a rag tag collection of random courses to credible, degree alternatives.
“We’re providing access to many learners who otherwise would not be able to further their career or take courses from some of the best universities in the world,” says Julia Stiglitz, Coursera’s director of business development.
The platform’s 16.6 million users are taking courses from 120 top universities and business schools, on topics such as big data, innovation, and organizational leadership.
Coursera’s flagship initiative is a series of programs called Specializations, which culminate in a project with an employer, and which students can buy certificates of. Business sees the potential: Coursera has struck deals with Google, Instagram and Shazam.
Launched in 2012 by MIT and Harvard, edX has serious credentials. In three years it has grown to have more than 85 partners such as UC Berkeley and Columbia universities, and EdX said in August this year it had hit five million users.
The non-profit group has evolved its focus from college and university-level courses to push into high school education and professional qualifications geared toward career advancement.
“We’ve heard from numerous students that their edX certificates helped them secure interviews and new jobs, or earn promotions,” says Nancy Moss, edX’s director of communications.
For the online learning industry, careers are increasingly the focus. A survey of 400 US employers by Duke University found that 57% said they could see their organization using Moocs for recruitment.
Udacity serves four million registered users globally, its CEO claimed recently, with 60% completing their courses.
Its flagship product is the “nanodegree”, a credential designed to appeal to employers. “Our curriculum is focused on giving people the skills they need for the jobs they want through online education,” says Vish Makhijani, president and COO of Udacity.
One of Udacity’s most hyped digital degrees is a course on developing a tech start-up, launched with Google this year. Udacity’s chief Sebastian Thrun once ran Google X, the search company’s secretive innovation lab.
Udacity has had particular success signing up big name corporations: AT&T paid it $3 million to develop a series of courses.
This year Udacity raised $105 million in venture capital, valuing the start-up at $1 billion.
FutureLearn was set-up by UK distance teaching specialist The Open University, which powered the launch with £2.5 million in funding. It has attracted nearly three million users and university partners such as UCL and China’s Fudan.
“We are still scratching the surface,” says CEO Simon Nelson, who adds that there is “enormous growth potential” globally for the online learning market.
FutureLearn’s most popular courses are on languages and business and management, he says, with new programs launching in January 2016 on managing investments, starting a business, and supply chain innovation, among others.
FutureLearn broke the record for the biggest single run of an online course, with more than 430,000 students signing up for an English language program.
In a nod to the future, the OU recently announced it will invest £13 million in FutureLearn to accelerate its international expansion: Simon says it has users in “just about every country in the world”.