The UNESCO Chair of Educational Technology for Social Change at UOC organised a seminar on the Social Impact of Online Education, aimed at analysing how online education can be a driver for more equitable higher education and how online education can contribute to social development. Two guest speakers facilitated the seminar: Prof Alan Tait from the Open University in the United Kingdom and Professor Adnan Qayyum from Penn State University in the USA.
The seminar aimed to look beyond access to university online education to look at 1) the expectations and experiences of students and 2) affordable and sustainable models for building capacity in skills development. The seminar took place within the context of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, particularly Sustainable Development Goal 4, which is focused on inclusive education and lifelong learning opportunities. The seminar also provided an opportunity for representatives of the private and public sectors to share their thoughts and insights.
Education is one of the tools to achieve sustainable development as better educated populations have opportunities for improved incomes and increased wellbeing. Online education can be a method to widen access to higher education through overcoming infrastructure constraints and offering timing flexibility. But access is not enough to achieve successful learning outcomes. In many cases, student dropout is very high in online learning. Additionally, if students do complete programmes, employers feel that many graduates do not possess the necessary skills. Thus the quality of provision is a complex concept and needs to be considered together with increasing access. In addition to considering employability, programmes need to consider personal development and citizenship. Universities can provide an opportunity to foster social and economic change (leading to increased equity) or can simply reinforce the status quo.
The difference between distance education providers and campus based providers has diminished due to the wide range of learning resources and communication channels provided through the internet. The missions of universities are different, yet education providers need to consider or reconsider their roles in society: Is it to prepare people for employment? Is it to provide the skills demanded by industries? Is it to foster personal development? Other questions for universities to consider: What are the expectations of students? What are the social effects of online education? What support do students need? What does student success mean?
This seminar is just one aspect of a broader discussion around the impact of online education. Later in the year, another seminar will consider the economic effects of online education.