Where is the future of online learning? Which providers will grow and which will diminish? In a regulated industry like education, it is often hard to predict. Yet, there are certain potentials futures that are far more likely than others. As I review the landscape and the developments over the last twenty years, I suspect that there are four especially strong potential futures. There may well be a blend of these four, but each represents a strong trend that is likely to traction.
Also, before I get started, I should explain that referencing these five is not necessarily a claim that all other forms of online learning will cease to exist in the future. Rather, I’m referring to futures where certain forms dominate over others. This is a matter of emphasis more than existence. You might even find it helpful to think in terms of market share. With that important caveat, here are for strong potential futures for online learning.
One possibility that seems to have gained significant attention in the last few years is the idea of the online learning regional influencer. In contrast to the national and international brands in online learning, many regional non-profit state Universities and private higher education institutions have captured market share. People resonate with and trust these schools, and that is extending to online learning. These may be online programs of hundreds or thousands, but they are often not the massive populations that we see with some of the past online programs. Some of these schools are also marketing their online programs nationally and internationally, but they get the majority of students in their own backyard and through a robust alumni network that extends beyond the region.
This is a promising future because regional online programs can find far less expensive ways to recruit students. They don’t necessarily need to spend the countless millions on digital campaigns across the country to get traction. More people already know them in the region, so a small but focused mixed channel marketing effort can be all that is needed to connect degree seeking student with their online programs.
A Few Massive Providers
At the same time, there are some for-profit and non-profit providers who might have started with a regional focus, but they have definitely extended their influence nationally and internationally. These programs have awareness, large marketing budgets, impressive and sizable teams (on the recruitment/marketing and academic side), and they are striving to set the bar for innovative programming.
There is the possibility that these will continue to grow and gain market share, pushing out many of the others who dabble with online learning. This could happen with some of the known and established online Universities today. It could also happen with elite Universities that choose to leverage their brand to establish a low-cost portfolio of online programs. While distinguishing these programs from their face-to-face counterparts, these schools could potentially pass by existing groups, using their longstanding brand reputation to become online program providers of choice. Granted that such schools establish cutting edge research to inform their design and practice, this would be a powerful force in the online space, allowing them to recruit large numbers with a limited marketing budget, simply because of the strong brand awareness.
Storefront & Partnerships
Then we have the large MOOC providers like Coursera and EdX. While they are not moving quickly into offering degree programs, the way in which they are set up could be preparing them to eventually becoming providers for small and massive online courses and programs. Universities could partner to offer courses that contribute to a shared degree, or one could take individual courses with a single University.
The MOOC providers have a compelling storefront model that has interesting possibilities. Instead of people simply conducting broad searches to find the right online degree, imagine a future where there are a few massive storefronts. Now imagine corporate and other partners playing some sort of role in this, providing pathways to certain jobs, aligning professional programs more closely with the needs of specific employers, and much more.
This approach is a strong possibility amid the unbundling experiments that we are seeing in education. Challenges with accreditation and inconsistency across organizations prevents a more such shared programs today, not to mention competitive element. Yet, if a storefront provider were to establish some sort of cross-organization standard, it is not hard to imagine a situation where there is greater transferability from one organization to the next. We could see programs created out of courses or even smaller curricular units from a few or even a dozen organizations. This future downplays the differentiation and distinctions from one organization to the next. It is a stronger possibility in ares of study where there is already a great deal of standardization due to external regulatory bodies. For example, this could work in a healthcare field where you have pretty much the same outcomes and courses regardless of where you study.
This future requires a type of partnership that is less common today in the degree-seeking world, but if an organization is successful in creating a well-known storefront, we could see a future of online learning that is not unlike the grocery store experience, only with courses and degrees. This leads me to a distinct but related idea, the competitive marketplace approach.
Another potential future is the Amazon model of online higher education. Imagine a future where you could go to a marketplace not unlike Amazon.com to search for online programs. We certainly see sites that collect and present many online options today, but those are largely simple sites with inquiry forms. These companies make money by charging schools to advertise their programs on the site. It is a basic business model.
We’ve not yet seen the growth of more advanced versions of this concept in education, truly bringing to reality a marketplace approach to searching for degree and non-degree training. Yet, there are some influential voices and organizations interested in creating something like this. It could begin with a regional partnership among 5-10 large state Universities, for example. Unlike the last example, where it might include more collaboration among course providers, this is mainly a storefront. It certainly could include collaboration, but it doesn’t need to. People can shop for courses and degrees across organizations.
The Free & Open Online University
We see open universities outside of the United States, but there are emerging financial innovations and political moves that may well drive a new type of online degree program, namely a free and open one. This could be government funded, but there are other possibilities for funding a completely or almost free online degree provider. Given the growth of the open learning movement combined with some political interests pushing for tuition-free college, this type of massive and online degree option has a possibility of coming into existing in the next decade.
Again, futures in education are influenced by a myriad of factors, and regulatory changes make it a challenge to see too far ahead. Yet, these four possible futures are rooted in some clear, persistent, and growing trends in the online learning space. I am confident that we will see one or more of them gain significant traction in the upcoming decade and beyond.