Why global universities should adopt e-learning



Of the top 20 universities in the The World University Rankings 2011-2012, five run a campus abroad. Although branch campuses and partnerships with foreign universities are on the rise, they require a level of investment and risk management that can be intimidating, even for universities with big endowments. But investment in online learning will allow universities to benefit from economies of scale and meet increasing demand from developing countries. A growing number of higher education institutions are taking this forward.

The University of California has launched an online programme as a part of its goal to become the first top-rated American institution to award an online bachelor’s degree. A pilot project will launch in January 2012, with the participation of academics and students, to assess whether undergraduate online courses can deliver ‘UC-quality’ instruction.


Many for-profits have built their whole business plans around online delivery. But they have been criticised for lowering academic standards and for controversial recruitment strategies. A turning point will occur when traditional universities with physical presence and academic reputations realise that the benefits of online delivery outweigh the disadvantages.

UC cites as a reason for its online initiative the forecast shortfall of college graduates. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, there will be 1m fewer graduates than needed by 2025. The Obama administration announced in 2011 the launch of a $2bn grant programme to enhance e-learning and access to learning material, with the goal of achieving the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020, from 39% in 2009 to 58-60% in 2020 (in the 25-34 age range).

This initiative comes as a response to unmet demand for e-learning in the US. According to the 2011 Survey of Online Learning, a barometer of online learning in the US conducted by Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board, a non-profit association, 6.1m students took at least one online course in autumn 2010 – 1/3 of all students in the US. Most noticeably, there was an increase of 560,000 students over the previous year. One of the authors of the report states that the rate of growth in online enrollments is ten times that of the rate in all higher education.


The developing world

A crucial benefit of online learning is that it will facilitate doing business in the developing world. It should therefore become central to the international strategies of higher education institutions. There already exist numerous free portals for lectures and coursework from top-quality institutions which are accessed from all over the world. China is also engaged in this. The next step is turning this into a degree-delivering business model for the providers – one that will be welcomed by those governments in developing countries that face enormous problems in HE participation levels.

The demand is there and there can never be enough classrooms. How is Kapil Sibal, the Indian Minister for Human Resource Development, even going to start approaching his 30% target for gross enrolment ratio by 2020 without online learning? Broadband is spreading in India and China. There were 400m internet users in China in 2009, and more people have access to the internet through cheap smartphones and tablets. The Aakash tablet developed by IIT Rajasthan and DataWind of London sells for $35. The price is subsidised and Sibal said the government aimed to distribute 10m of them to students over the next few years.

There is already a boom in online education in India. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the online market generated $200m in revenue in 2008, and was expected to reach $1bn by 2010. Subjects that are particularly IT-friendly and crucial for India’s economy, such as computer science, engineering, marketing and business administration, are particularly popular. Online delivery is also a response to one of the main problems facing Indian higher education: the lack of quality academic staff almost everywhere.

Online learning can also address the relative lack of flexibility in Indian higher education. Shiv Nadar, an Indian billionaire who has spent $400m on education charities, including a university in Uttar Pradesh, cites as a reason for his philanthropic work his frustration with the rigid structure of the system: ‘I was never allowed to do anything cross-disciplinary. Why can\’t an engineering student learn physics?’

Despite the messiness of the legal and regulatory environment in the sector, many foreign providers have managed to partner with Indian universities and grab a share of the online market. In 2007 Carnegie Mellon University tied up with Shri Sivasubramaniya Nadar College of Engineering in Chennai to offer IT courses. Cornell University has partnered with South Indian service provider Easy Educate to offer courses in finance, management, and human resources.

A safe indicator of potential growth in an industry is the amount of money it attracts from venture capital funds: $74m was invested in Indian education companies in 2007. Some Indian companies are even competitive at the global stage, such as Indian Math Online, which targets secondary education students in India and the US.

As for China, it is telling that the share prices of companies specialising in online delivery are booming. Kaplan Open Learning has identified three reasons why there will be significant growth in online education in China over the next few years: ‘the expansive and rural geography of the country, the high competition for fewer enrolment places (comparable to the UK or US, at least), and recent government-stimulated incentives to ensure compulsory learning for all’.

12.2m people used online education in 2007 according to Market Avenue, a 25% increase in one year. The size of the market quadrupled from RMB 10.6bn in 2004 to RMB 40.5bn in 2011. And there is huge potential for growth, as foreign providers have only recently entered this vast market. The University of Massachusetts became in 2008 the first foreign university approved to offer online courses and degree programmes in China.

China and India are the fastest growing markets, but are not the only ones. South Africa and Brazil are also on the rise. Universities that will manage to enter successfully the global digital market over the next few years will have an advantage over those that hesitate to take the leap. Mergers between universities are likely, particularly in Europe and the US. Leaders in the online niches might be the first institutions to dodge the consequences of technological disruption in higher education and be the first truly global universities.