Online Higher Education in the 21st Century

The twenty first century presents unique challenges for higher education. Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) are seen as the major driving force of the future economies of countries around the world. While complexities of the society are enforcing the need for more education, ICTs are increasingly expanding the reach and range of educational institutions by making it possible to access any course from anywhere in the world and at anytime. They offer the possibility of drawing students from many countries who are studying the same course together at the same time. They also serve both the ‘free market’ (i.e. those markets where people are able and are prepared to pay the full cost of accessing services) and the ‘social market’ (i.e. those in need of on demand education and training, and do not have the resources to access or pay for such services, but who for reasons of both social justice and long term national economic development need basic education, upgrading or retraining).

The scope of education is being dramatically increased from a specialized activity for young people to a lifetime need for everyone. The wealth of nations will depend increasingly on knowledge based high-tech industries. This means that education and trainings are essential elements of the new information age not just in the pre-work years but throughout lifetime. Thus, ICTs offer the promise of not only widening access, but also improving the quality of learning by making it relevant to the skills and knowledge needed in an information society.

What is emerging today is education in four kinds of campus settings:
-Campus based education (conventional universities etc.)
-Dual mode education (Traditional universities offering online courses as well)
-Off campus education (open universities and distance education institutions, etc.)
-Global electronic campus education (virtual universities, electronic based consortia/global networks, etc.)

There has been a tremendous growth and diversity in the number and types of learners, the learning outside traditional classrooms and also in the variety of providers from typical single mode and dual mode institutions (open universities/dual mode universities) with the purpose of increasing the access of corporate organizations to higher education in the aim of upgrading/retraining their workforce.

By using ICTs, formal universities are being transformed into distance learning institutes. They are starting to lecture on and offline to meet the growing pool of part-time students and open another potentiality. On the other hand, distance learning institutes are aiming to make it possible to teach and learn beyond spatial/time limits.

Behavioral and social issues play a huge role in the uptake of online offerings so do the economic issues that rule the implementation of online business models. The learning community would move beyond the classroom walls and would no more be dictated by the classroom schedule. Systems would no longer be age or time based. All boundaries related to distance, time, location of study, age, language, and culture would disappear. Individuals/groups that constitute the learning communities would be able to interact with each other across the globe. In other words, ICTs can personalize the prevailing impersonal studies by making dialogue teaching forms possible, and enabling them to be transmitted via data networks.

The exponential growth of information and communications technology (ICT) over the last 10 to 15 years has had a profound impact in every walk of life. Given the impact of ICT on many businesses and industries, it is being seen as major change agent in the field of higher education too. ICTs are predicted to revolutionize the way education is delivered. Computers are increasingly becoming powerful with technological breakthroughs in satellite, fiber optic and wireless technology. Software developments such as multimedia authoring systems have made it easier to create digital material such as computer simulations and educational material. Consequently, there is great interest in virtual education, which is based on the idea of a widespread and significant application of ICT on the core activities of education.

Many institutions worldwide, but particularly in North America, Australia and New Zealand, the United Kingdom and several other European countries such as Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have taken early lead and invested heavily in online education infrastructure.

It is clear that ICT capacity will continue to expand at a rapid rate throughout the world and will drive opportunities for online education. It will be in the interest of nations and institutions to embrace online education system.

On the other hand, virtual education requires a stringent set of conditions to work efficiently and online accreditation must embrace multiple standards of learning if it is to be universally accepted. Thus, traditional education settings and processes will not disappear, nor should they.

As today’s children become tomorrow’s college students, providing alternative (online) learning environments will become more and more important. With the changing face and needs of society, quick adaptation would be the key to success. While universities need not abandon their rich traditions, they must become more adaptable and flexible to survive. For institutions that refuse to change, the outcome is quite clear: public support will fade and they will eventually cease to exist.