Online education has been a multi-billion dollar industry for years. In 2005, for example, The University of Phoenix contributed 40% of parent company Apollo Group’s record revenue of $1.8 billion. In 2009 over 4.5 million students were taking online classes as traditional brick and mortar colleges like California Berkeley, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began offering distance learning to their students. By 2014, the number of online students had grown so dramatically President Barack Obama pledged over $500 million to create new online course materials to fuel the industry.
Course materials weren’t the only challenge, though. The technology to power it wasn’t keeping up with demand.
The Mother of Innovation
It’s been said desperate times trigger technological strides, and calls for distance learning innovation became common in the 2010s as online enrollments grew. eLearning tech investment and innovation, however, were stagnant. Steadily growing enrollments weren’t the catalyst needed to advance the technology. Then in 2020, the worldwide pandemic forced tens of millions of students worldwide to stay home, and we saw the world of distance learning begin evolving at a rapid pace. So even as educational institutions began re-opening earlier this year, the online genie is out of the bottle
Online Education Technology Is Booming and the Benefits Are Apparent
Although the jury is still out on whether the worst of the pandemic is truly behind us, investments in education technology are projected to grow to $350 billion by 2025, up from a meager-by comparison of $18 billion in 2019. This influx of cash and technology has combined to create a more tech-savvy class of educators and students who see several advantages distance learning has over traditional classroom education.
For many students, taking classes remotely provides better opportunities to network with other students with different backgrounds and experiences. Online education gives students better access to experts with real-world experience in what they’re teaching.
It also means geography is no longer a barrier. Students can choose classes anywhere globally, which drives up competition among both learning institutions and technology.
Traditional education teaches the facts and figures of any given subject but doesn’t always show students their practical applications in a future career path. Online education will often venture into ways students can market their skills and chart a course for a productive professional life.
Distance learning also benefits instructors. In 2020, the Education Week Research Center asked asked educators nationwide how the COVID-19 school closures influenced their use of technology. 87% responded their ability to use the technology improved, with many saying they’ve become more tech-savvy and a plurality intended to continue using distance learning tech when the pandemic recedes.
The growing acceptance of online learning may be the answer to their budget woes for colleges and universities. As funding dries up in many states and enrolment plateaus due to the COVID hangover and other factors, distance learning is a much-needed revenue stream.
As reported by U2B Education for Careers in the summer of 2019, “spending cuts on higher education have hit many colleges in the US hard. Since 2008, states have collectively scaled back their annual funding of public colleges by US$9 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.”
Writing further on the topic, U2B observes higher education enrolment is predicted to continue declining through 2027 because of the shrinking college-aged population in the United States. In decades past, universities capitalized on the consistently growing high school graduate demographic. But this growth is slowing, drying up the potential for tuition revenue that institutions rely on.
This Isn’t Everyone’s Savior
In analyzing the online education sector, Moody’s warned this isn’t the be-all-end-all for funding and enrollment issues facing higher education.
“The capital investment, expertise, and institutional commitment required to develop online education at scale are often too great to make this a worthwhile strategy for many institutions,” the report reads.
There’s also the very real potential to leave some students without options. As state funding to public colleges dwindles and investment in broadband infrastructure lags, the digital divide - the gap in access to technology by socioeconomic status, race, and gender – puts getting quality education out of reach for some.
These are real barriers to making online education efficient, profitable, and accessible by all who need it.
By Joey Davis