From education to employment

The way ahead for flexible and affordable degrees is online

Tuition fees are currently set at £3,225 per year, leaving many graduates with over £23,000 worth of debt. With increases in fees likely to leave graduates even deeper in debt, Richard Horton, Regional Vice President, EMEA at Blackboard believes that technology needs to be properly harnessed to help deliver more flexible and affordable degree programmes for students.

It makes sense in times of economic uncertainty for everyone to limit their borrowing. This applies to students as much as to anyone else. However, the problem with the current funding system, and with 3 – 4 year full time undergraduate study, is that a typical student has to borrow before they even begin, with no certainty of completion or a job at the end. Students are saddled with a potentially enormous debt before they have even received their first pay cheque. The current uncertainty surrounding available places at traditional colleges as well as the expense of higher fees and living costs in general is driving student demand for online courses and paving the way for more – these courses offer a realistic alternative route to gaining a prestigious degree that is valued by business.

There is at present, £3.5 billion in the government pot to support training places and a further £1 billion to fund other areas of FE spending – continuous investment in technology to provide more online degrees needs to be a serious priority. With the abolishment of BECTA, technology must not be forgotten as it is a vital tool in helping UK education achieve its ambitions. Even within the current difficult economic climate, technology will continue to bring new opportunities that have the potential to make a real difference to peoples’ lives. Studying for a degree from home can really help with the overall cost of education. The use of online distance learning technology, including social networking tools, coupled with quality online courses using appropriate pedagogy, can go a long way to substituting for the full campus academic learning experience.

In an ideal world students would have the option to take an online degree at their college of choice whilst being able, at the same time, to be ‘enrolled’ at their college closest to home. The local choice would offer access to campus facilities and the benefit that that affords, including visiting speaker events, library, sporting, social etc and possibly superfast broadband if that was also a requirement of the course.

Taking this to the next logical step would be to have more modular degrees that can be engaged with whilst a student is in full or part-time work. This has the benefit that a student can adapt his or her degree programme as work experience unveils the subject matter that is of most importance to the career path intended. Too often students either enter a degree programme without a clear career in mind or simply ‘arrive’ on the jobs market with a degree and join the list of unemployed.

Colleges and universities need to be the backbone of inclusive lifelong learning and social cohesion. As well as recognising the fundamental role education plays in economic growth, it is also important to stress that study for the sake and fun of study should be applauded and maintained. Learners of all ages need the chance to use technology well to support their learning. In some cases this learning is an investment for the future; in others it is more informal; but importantly it can lead to greater productivity and prosperity, personal fulfillment, and a stronger community. If colleges and universities were more flexible in their options for mature students then study for fun could be a lifelong pastime whilst one is gainfully employed. However, this requires a change to the system and a firm commitment to lifelong learning in the form of investment in the forms of technology that can make flexible distance learning a true reality.

Richard Horton is vice president EMEA at Blackboard, the education software company that works with more than 5,000 institutions and millions of users

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