The Future of Online Learning: Key Points from our Webinar

Tuesday the 19th of January saw The Knowledge Partnership host the third in their University Market Insight: Webinar Series.  Alongside TKP’s own Adam Cresswell, were speakers from the University of London, who provided insight on a subject they are experts in, online learning. Online learning is perhaps one of the most important issues in higher education, especially since the start of the pandemic when most institutions have had to make the switch from face-to-face teaching to distance learning. There are many reports that try to predict the future size and shape of the online education market. They all agree that the size of the market will grow, but there is no agreement on the scale or timing of this change. The growth of online learning, as we previously mentioned has been accelerated by the pandemic with all institutions having to make changes that would have initially taken long periods of time in a few short weeks. University of London was no different. Although experts in online learning, the pandemic still posed a challenge for them, forcing them to respond and react swiftly. Huw Morgan Jones, Head of Surveys & Student Voice at the University of London discussed some of the responses the institution made. Their 4 key responses were:

  • Introducing online assessment for 30k students
  • Supporting teaching centres
  • Community building and wellbeing support
  • Promoting study options to those locked down

Alongside these institution-specific insights, the webinar explored some of the research and data surrounding online learning to look at the marketplace as a whole and to see where the growth is most likely to happen and how institutions should use this information to boost their online learning offer. We have put together some of the most salient findings to help guide you and your institutions:

1. There is an overwhelming need for better data for the sector (collected by HESA). This would help Higher Education Institutions to be demand-led and reduce the risk of new investments

2. Online learning should be part of a joined-up education strategy. This includes the following areas: 

  • Price – How does this reflect the value of online education (flexibility etc)? How do fees compare with on-campus and for different student domiciles?

    The Knowledge Partnership’s Tuition Fee Benchmarking Tool allowed us to analyse the average fees for online learning compared to full time, on-campus courses. It showed that as a UK student, the difference between studying full-time or distance learning is minimal. The majority of courses have MA and MSc awards and the differences in fees are just -7 and -3 percent.

    The rationale for OSI students is clearer, with the cost a third cheaper for MA and MSC courses, making a significant saving. (This is before travel, accommodation and living costs are taken into account.)

    As online learning becomes more accepted and embedded, will it become more common to set the same fee regardless of location? Are there ethical issues of charging significantly different prices for on (or in the case of part-time, occasionally on) campus and fully online? Teaching, support, and assessment resources will still be used, and a good online course requires regular updating and refreshing in the same way that it will face-to-face.

    If a full-time course has a significantly different value to a distance learning course for online, then are we overselling our face-to-face provision or underselling our distance learning?

    fees chart
  • Market Position – Does online education represent value, or a high quality, global experience?  The fundamentals of successful online education are unlikely to change:
    • Doing the basics (factors that drive satisfaction) well
    • Flexibility of delivery
    • Academic prestige and integrity
    • Employability
    • Affordability & value

  • Student Support – How is this provided to students? Do they feel like they are part of a community? Many distance learning students may still want to access the library or student support services or feel like they belong to an institution, and therefore it makes sense to study at a relatively local institution, as long as the institution is offering the course that is right for them. Data from a Learning House annual survey in the US showed that in 2019 two thirds of students were studying within 50 miles, and 44 percent within 25 miles. Those percentages have shown a steady increase in each survey from 2014, indicating a trend that is continuing. An article in HEPI, entitled ‘Understanding Online Distance Learning in the UK’ reiterated this point, discussing the importance of place. The article suggested that half of learners find value in the physical location as it means they can use the facilities and meet their tutors…..adding a ‘realness’ to an otherwise digital process.

  • Infrastructure – Digital design and delivery are not cheap. Getting this wrong will lead to a poor experience and lower satisfaction.Online learning shouldn’t be seen as separate from face-to-face activity. Often they will share materials, staff, platforms and when designing online programmes it should be considered how they will fit the mix of the overall portfolio. Their price and position must be set in relation to on-campus activity and their student support and infrastructure needs also considered on the whole.

3. Cultural attitudes to online education are less positive in the UK than most other countries. If one lasting impact of the pandemic is that all education becomes a little more online in its delivery, could this remove some of the distinctions between online and on-campus education?


Although many institutions all over the world offer excellent, established online learning opportunities, as the market grows, future challenges need to be considered. The main challenges, as discussed by Katherine Bull, Head of Strategic Planning & Insight, at University of London, included:

  • Recession – this will not only limit funds that institutions have to provide online learning at the level it needs to be but also have an impact on the amount of money prospective students have to spend on undertaking these qualifications.

  • Lack of common international regulation - There is also a slow pace to recognise overseas online qualifications among education ministries elsewhere in the world. Some of their main concerns include a worry of high levels of plagiarism; the impact of a rural/urban divide and how that is reflected on who is getting access and a lack of trust in standards and lack of quality frameworks across the world.

  • Digital divide – This is a big issue across education of all levels but is a particular challenge to online learning as it limits access to courses to those who can afford it, therefore reducing access to potential benefits.

  • Cultural acceptance – For many an online qualification is considered inferior to a taught qualification. This may be related to the lack of international regulation and the worries around it or it may simply be a matter of unsubstantiated stigma. Either way, greater strides need to be taken in growing this cultural acceptance in order for the sector to reach its potential.

    Oxford Quote

  • Student experience – Many of the factors that attract a student to education fall outside of the course content itself; it may be the social factors, the chance of growing their independence, or experiencing a new culture, therefore online education needs to offer students more than just online learning to factor in that loss of experience.

  • Cost of delivery & marketing – Whilst students and funders expect a lower fee for learning online, due to the removal of other university factors, the fact remains that delivering and marketing the courses is still an expensive process. Therefore getting this balance wrong could hinder the growth of the online learning sector.

The final webinar in the series, 'Key Trends in UK and Global Higher Education' will take place on March 9th 2021. Click here to find out more.