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Can online platforms solve inequality in education?

Simon Nelson, Futurelearn CEO, thinks the online approach is breaking down barriers in education, increasing opportunity for all

Posted by Rianna Newman | August 26, 2017 | Technology

Education was once associated with those that could afford the opportunity, now we’re seeing global cohorts of students learning together, whether it’s a short course, an introduction to a subject area or a taster course leading to a full online degree.

At FutureLearn, transforming access to education is a topic close to our hearts. A study by Harvard and the Asian development bank tells us that only 6.7% of the world’s population has a degree, showing a lot of work is still to be done to ensure everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential. But inequality doesn’t only refer to populations in less-developed countries, this also encompasses those in the developed world. 

Due to the constant flux within the education sphere, opportunities have been narrowed for many people: the cost of education is rising around the world, institutions have had to address the fact that borders may be closing, and new demands in the workplace have prompted a re-examination of the learner profile to address the fact that education needs to cater for more than just those in undergraduate study. 

The online approach has significantly contributed to breaking down barriers to education to address these inequalities and increase the opportunity of open access for all. 

We most recently announced the launch of 50 online degrees with Coventry University over the next five years

Connecting global cohorts online

With a very small minority of the population holding a degree qualification, this raises the question: do enough people have access to this level of education? 

As borders are closing, institutions are faced with the challenge of reaching learners on a global scale. With wider internet access today, learners have the opportunity to access content from world-class universities, regardless of their location. By connecting online, learners are able to access content from universities on the other side of the globe, and interact with learners from completely different backgrounds.

The social learning element of the FutureLearn platform not only enables learners to study alongside one another, but also allows them to discuss and exchange ideas, delving into the educational content at a much deeper level to increase their understanding of a topic. This pedagogical approach benefits those who might not normally benefit from access to education or indeed different viewpoints, which we hope enhances their learning and their wider understanding of people in different environments. 

Transparent access to course material

When we talk about inequality, we not only refer to reaching people in remote areas; for students worldwide, paying for an undergraduate degree is a huge undertaking, so they should be given every opportunity to ensure they’re making the right decision. It’s important for students to know exactly what they’re paying for so that they’re confident with the financial commitment they’re making. 

We most recently announced the launch of 50 online degrees with Coventry University over the next five years. This followed the addition of Deakin University to our partner portfolio – the first partner to launch several fully online degrees on a MOOC platform. With both partners, we wanted to ensure this idea of greater transparency, so every Program and degree offers a free ‘taster’ element where learners can sample the content covered and decide if they’re comfortable with the qualification they’re pursuing before committing financially. Ultimately, it allows them to try before they buy. Almost 16,000 people have enrolled in the free taster session: ‘Cyber Security for Small and Medium Enterprises’ from Deakin University, showing a real demand for visibility of course material. 

Re-thinking the learner profile

Whilst a three- or four-year undergraduate degree fits the bill for some, and there will always be a place for campus-based learning, this form of study doesn’t address the needs of everyone. As the job market transforms and employees embark upon multiple careers in their lifetime, universities need to rethink their role in society to accommodate more than just the 18–25-year-old student. 

Online platforms are paving the way to enabling greater access to education. By providing an international learning experience, empowering students with greater visibility of course content, and reaching a greater pool of learners, people all over the world are being given the opportunity to realise their full potential, regardless of economic challenges and boundaries imposed by the current political climate. 

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