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Online learning can prepare students for a fast-changing future – wherever they are

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Take a moment to think back to the first classroom you ever entered, whether it was at school, or nursery, chances are there was a blackboard, with coloured chalk where you focused most of your attention. You were probably working from a booklet or on paper using pencil and crayons and drawing pictures by hand.

Now fast forward to the classroom of 2017 and everything has changed. Gone are the chalks and the crayons – which have been replaced by screens, social networks, cloud computing and augmented reality.

Technology has changed the way classrooms work, not just at school, but right throughout the education system. So from nursery to university, students these days engage with online learning from day one. And yet, despite this increased growth in technological advances, higher education institutions are operating in an increasingly competitive and unstable market.

In the UK, the introduction of increased fees for undergraduate study, the removal of the recruitment cap and the subsequent competition for good students has created an unprecedented era of “education consumerism”.

Students too, expect more from their learning. Feverish recent press coverage of the “clearing free-for-all” where selective Russell Group universities offered places through clearing in traditionally highly selective courses has emphasised the view of students as consumers in a “buyer’s market”.

The idea of a “typical student” is also changing. With this comes a change in how these students prefer to learn. In particular, older students looking to obtain postgraduate qualifications want their education to be valuable and worthwhile. But it must also be flexible enough to fit in with their existing commitments and responsibilities.

Universities are also in the market of preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist yet. Even after graduating from a first degree there is an increasing need and pressure on students to keep learning and adapting.

Taking it online

During the past decade, international student numbers have also rapidly grown at universities in both the UK and US. But with the threat of Brexit on the horizon in the UK – as well as an altogether not particularly welcoming visa system – these are numbers that have recently started to dwindle.

Given these political issues – and increased difficulties for international students in terms of getting visas – one solution could be to change the way education is actually accessed. In a post-Brexit world, online education could provide an important method for international students to move ahead with their education. It could also enable them to study for a degree at a UK university from the comfort of their own home.

In this way, a carefully constructed online learning programme that also has lots of support built in provides an international experience for students. But on top of that it also can provide an experience that is relevant and gives students a valuable skill-set for their future working life. The online classroom and the sense of collaborating across international and cultural boarders mirrors the workplaces these students are in or aspire to work in.

Future classrooms

It is clear then that online programmes can and should be viewed as an innovative platform through which access to higher education can continue. This is important because online learning breaks down barriers that are otherwise difficult to overcome and helps to share knowledge across the globe. This provides students with new knowledge that is enriched with international insights and cultural awareness.

It also ensures that learning can continue to be accessed remotely from across the globe, no matter how uncertain the future higher education landscape becomes. But, for this to happen, higher education institutions must continue to adapt, and develop new ways to deliver programmes and courses. This will not only ensure they follow global trends and advances, but also make sure that education truly is accessible to all.

The ConversationHelen O'Sullivan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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