How online education can transform the international student experience

“If the online learning platform is of high quality, there is no reason why the online learner should be disadvantaged when studying virtually”

The facts are pretty clear-online education provision is growing and, not only does it benefit working adults who can fit studying around their work and family commitments, but it also has the power to transform the lives of international students.

Take high tariff, popular courses in the UK, such as veterinary science and medicine. The average premium international students are paying to study in the UK is £20,000 per year, so an additional £100,000 over a 5 year study period. Fees for international students typically increase every year across almost all Universities, so the cost of study in the UK is consistently rising.

Whilst fulfilling a lab-based degree online is still some way off, there are already courses in the US (Southern New Hampshire University is a good example) that offer online Nursing degrees with clinical aspects of the courses being supervised at hospital facilities near where the student lives. Also, as VR becomes more embedded into the way students study and the technology itself develops further it will be possible, in time, for some clinical aspects of degrees to also be conducted and evaluated online.

For non-clinical based degrees obviously, there is nothing to hold back full completion of a degree online and it is clear from recent research that if the online learning platform is of high quality, then there is no reason why the online learner should be disadvantaged in studying virtually.

For example, the University of Essex Online achieved a score of 93% for overall student satisfaction in the 2017 National Student Survey (NSS). This is significantly higher than the sector average of 85% for part-time and 84% for full-time providers for higher education institutions in England.

So why aren’t more international students opting for online courses in the UK particularly?

Certainly, there is some issue with supply in the UK and it is fair to say the UK is some way from competing with the US where the proportion of all students who were enrolled exclusively online grew to 15.4% (up from 14.7% in 2016) or about one in six students. The share of all students who mixed online and in-person courses grew slightly faster, to 17.6% in 2017 from 16.4%  in 2016. And the proportion of all students who took at least one course online grew to 33.1 %, from 31.1% in 2016, according to the US Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.

However, the landscape is changing fast with the UK’s FutureLearn — the leading online social learning provider in Europe — currently providing a variety of online degrees and masters programs, with more to follow. In 2017, the company announced that it was partnering with Coventry University to deliver 50 masters degrees over a five year period.”

“There is a golden opportunity for UK Universities willing to embrace the opportunity”

Also, clearly an online course does not offer the cultural and broader educational opportunities that a campus-based programme offers. A good online course offered via a quality learning management system will allow students to meet and engage with their peers who are studying the same course, but obviously, this is not comparable to the 24/7 campus experience a traditional degree offers.

Perhaps increasingly Universities will offer summer schools to online students to enhance their learning experience and some Universities already offer this. For example, the University of Sheffield’s music masters programmes offer a mandatory summer school as part of their study programme, so students get to meet each other in person and enjoy being on campus and living in Sheffield for a period of time.

From both domestic and international students concern is sometimes expressed that online degrees will not be treated seriously by employers. These perceptions are changing, but Universities can also help to reinforce the academic rigour of online courses by not stipulating ‘online’ delivery on degree certificates. Degree certificates for degrees completed online at the University of Essex do not mention the mode of study, the mode of study is only mentioned in the transcripts that accompany final grades.

It is also important that online students are properly supported with their studies and this is particularly important for international students who may feel especially ‘remote’ from the institution they are studying with and their peers.  As already stated, a high quality learning management system is vital ensuring learning is interactive via; webinars, online forums, Skype calls with lecturers and personal tutors etc.

Learning from the US again, as the online student experience has been evaluated far more than in the UK, recent research has highlighted the value of Ongoing, consistent support for online Students to help them feel fully supported during their studies. An example of this kind of support is exemplified by the role of the Academic Advisor at Arizona State University.

The Academic Advisor helps field all questions students may have and then direct students appropriately to the right college personnel to get answers to their queries. (ASU has 30,000 students studying undergraduate degrees and masters programmes online):

“Looking to the US, there is clearly plenty of scope for UK Universities to be developing their online offer”

“Your Academic Advisor is trained to know all of your degree requirements from beginning to end and can assist in planning your courses in an appropriate sequence. You can direct most university-related questions to your advisor; if they do not have the answer, they will point you to the available resource that does.”

So, looking to the US, there is clearly plenty of scope for UK Universities to be developing their online offer at both undergraduate and postgraduate level to benefit both domestic, but particularly international students. Of course, they need to offset the loss of campus course fee income against increased online student numbers and the cost of developing online courses with excellent content and training faculty to deliver online, but there is a golden opportunity for UK Universities willing to embrace the opportunity…

About the author:  Pat Moores is director and co-founder of UK Education Guide.