Higher education – the future is virtual

WE are living in the Digital Age (aka Information Age), where technologies do not only support our daily lives, but serve as extensions to the limitations of the human body. Everyday, we spend a considerable amount of time navigating cyberspace and relying on web-based communications and transactions to take care of many aspects of our lives.

Online education refers to the adoption of digital technologies for the purpose of teaching and learning, which may include assessments. Earning a degree through online education is definitely not a new concept. In fact, millions of students are enrolled in online degree programmes worldwide, scaling this sector into a multibillion-dollar business.

The first full-fledged online university came into existence in the 1990s, at the time when personal computers were becoming popular among households. Traditional universities with physical campuses are also offering online programmes, mostly to capture new student markets.

Learning online is often regarded as distance learning. While there are many similarities between online and distance learning, the latter does not always involve cyberspace or use of digital technologies. One such example is the growing number of research-based distance learning postgraduate programmes, mostly offered by universities in the United Kingdom and Europe, where candidates can be based anywhere as long as they are able to work on their research.

Despite technological advancements being so deeply rooted in our culture today, the pursuit of higher education online is a double-edged sword. On one hand, universities are allocating grants to encourage the development and promotion of online and blended learning. Top-ranked universities, such as Oxford and Stanford, are also making their modules or short courses available online.

On the other hand, however, there is scepticism towards qualifications obtained from online modes of learning. Online degrees are often perceived as less favourable, citing concerns over technological challenges and time management, and more so, the quality of teaching and learning. China’s Ministry of Education, for instance, denies verification of academic qualifications earned through online education and distance learning.

The outbreak of Covid-19 has disrupted face-to-face teaching. Universities in Hong Kong and, ironically, China are resorting to online teaching as the most ideal alternative. In recent years, digital technologies are catching up to the demands of education. One such tool is Zoom, a web conferencing application that supports interactive live lectures, with added functions to assign participants into different breakout rooms for in-depth discussions.

To quote a famous line from media scholar, John M. Culkin, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”. While current digital technologies for education seem to mirror face-to-face learning environment, there will come a time where our learning habits will be reshaped by the very technologies.

Imagine earning credits for an online bachelor’s degree from not just one, but a pool of higher educational institutions, or being recommended suitable programmes and institutions of study based on one’s browsing habits online. These fantasies could become reality in the near future.

Universities will continue to react and adapt to these changes, like they have done for hundreds of years. Besides rolling out more online qualifications, universities are likely to collaborate on web-based exchanges, such as e-conferences or joint degree programmes online. I believe the scepticism towards online learning will eventually diminish.

There is no denying that the future of higher education is virtual.

Associate Professor Dr Benny Lim is Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Berjaya University College. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com