Reconciling quality and scale—Online education’s big challenge

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Higher education students in Bogota, Colombia.

Guest blog by: Juliana Guaqueta Ospina, an Education Specialist at the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group.

Watching my two-year-old daughter progress from baby words to full sentences, I am already wondering who she will want to be as an adult and what kind of higher education she will need. From my role at IFC, part of the World Bank Group, I see a fast-changing education landscape. Online learning, a $165 billion industry that is growing by 5 percent a year, as reported at IFC’s Global Private Education conference in Cape Town in April, has the potential to be a big disruptor and gamechanger.

When the moment comes, will she choose a traditional, campus-based university, one with a ‘stage on the stage’ imparting words of wisdom to an array of students in a large lecture hall? Or will this model have been made obsolete by the Digital Revolution? Based on trends I observe, I am willing to wager that the campus-based university will still be around. Teachers are too important to go without. However, course curricula are rapidly integrating more online learning elements.

My prediction was reaffirmed by a recent roundtable that IFC co-organized with edX and Universidad Javeriana in Bogota in my native Colombia, where we convened leading lights from the campus university and online education’s increasingly intersecting spheres. We learned about an innovative partnership forged between edX, one of the world’s largest online education providers, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who together have created a blended degree.

The degree begins with a student doing an online MicroMasters at lower cost, which earns them credit toward a campus-based Masters at regular cost. This model lowers the overall cost of obtaining a full Masters for the student, gives the university an opportunity to assess in advance if the student is a good fit for the full program, while giving the online education provider a way to have their course credentialed with the possibility of recognition by other universities.

The question for an emerging market like Latin America and the Caribbean is whether a version of such a model could inspire solutions for achieving the goal of expanding higher education enrolment without compromising on quality. According to a recent article in University World News, the region will see an uptick in enrolments from 25.3 million in 2015 to 36.7 million by 2030. Blended models can help the region meet the increased demand while preserving key elements of campus-based education. We see it happening already: a 2015 OECD study of 34 Latin American universities found that 16 percent were using a blended model, 19 percent an online model, and 65 percent a traditional face-to-face model.

A blended model may also help redress two oft-heard criticisms of online education: low graduation rates and substandard quality. A recent study by Arizona State University that looked at six U.S. higher education institutions actually reported higher graduation rates among students who took at least a portion of their studies online. Having online components also extends access to higher education to traditionally-excluded groups: people in rural areas, women and people with limited resources or disabilities.

At the Bogota roundtable, we learned from Anant Agarwal that there are three key trends driving the future of education. It will become modular, to enable students to combine courses and provide flexibility to manage space and time; omni channel, with different options to obtain online courses for credit; and lifelong, because the need to upskill will continue throughout our professional lives. At IFC, we are committed to supporting the continuous improvement and transformation of higher education institutions. We aim to help them leverage technology to provide a dramatically different, and more effective, response to the challenges ahead brought by increasing automation and the 4th Industrial Revolution in developing countries.

While absorbing these fascinating trends and interesting possibilities, I return to my original question: what higher education will my daughter want to have? My own answer is twofold. Technology is doing a great job at lowering time and space barriers to education—and lowering costs. I hope and expect to see online elements woven into the fabric of her university life to improve the quality of the learning experience and outcomes. At all levels of education, there are fascinating possibilities with Artificial Intelligence to provide advanced tutoring and support, adaptive platforms to personalize learning processes, and applications of the science of learning to instructional design.

At the same time, I would love for her to develop meaningful connections with peers and teachers, as well as brilliant minds because this will provide her with essential experiences and guidance. The blend of these elements will, I hope, enable her to thrive and contribute to tomorrow’s economy and society.


Juliana Guaqueta Ospina

Education specialist at IFC

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