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Open online learning – challenge or opportunity?

Today’s education, just like business, is heavily disrupted by digitalization and new technologies.


Johanna Koskinen

development officer, Ulysseus
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 12.12.2022

Online education is without a doubt here to stay even after the Covid-19 pandemic is over as more and more learners have gotten used to learning where and when they choose.

This trend has also accelerated the amount of online courses available for anyone to take, i.e. open online courses, and the variety of their providers from private companies to NGOs (non-governmental organisations). Just to give one concrete example, the number of people using the UK-based online learning platform FutureLearn reached 17 million in 2021, compared with 14 million in 2020, and 10 million in 2019.

That just shows you that there is growing untapped potential for higher education institutions to reach wider audiences of learners if they’re willing to lower their barriers to learning. Simultaneously, online education provides a convenient way to increase accessibility and affordability.

There are certainly other benefits as well. Open online learning is one solution for universities to make education more aligned with the fast-changing labor market requirements and offer more lifelong learning opportunities (which are truly needed). It may also allow specific individual needs to be met in a cost-effective way by offering more flexible, personal, and self-directed options for learning.

However, open online learning comes with its own challenges. It forces HEIs (higher education institutions) to innovate their pedagogies, because it requires open content, competencies, assessments and credentials. Furthermore, the more open and autonomous a course is, the more potential exists for learners to suffer from lack of structure, support, and moderation which in turn impacts the overall completion rates of the courses.

As digital learning environments gain more presence, new technological solutions are needed to enable learning that is not dependent on time or place. Also, the traditional role of educators being distributors of knowledge is challenged. They are perceived to be more content creators and need to think of new ways to urge and encourage learners to fully complete the courses.

The competition globally is already fierce with a whole new category of educational competitors, such as companies like Google with plenty of resources. In this new jungle of courses, quantity over quality simply means higher dropout rates.

Therefore, HEIs should focus not only on their core strength of providing quality education (referring to subject expertise and pedagogical knowledge) but also on fixing their clear weakness of providing versatile learner-centric online learning environments.