Looking to the Future: Technology and Online Education

Advances in technology and global connectivity have raised exciting possibilities and serious challenges for higher education. In January the Open University of Hong Kong invited educators from around the globe to examine these issues at the inaugural International Conference on Open and Flexible Education. I was fortunate to attend the conference as part of IIE's traveling fellowship, and I was eager to learn about the ways in which technology will impact the future of education and international exchange programs.

I arrived to find the Open University of Hong Kong nestled into Hong Kong’s incredibly compact urban environment. It is built twelve stories high into the hilly terrain of the Kowloon neighborhood and enrolls 20,000 in-classroom and online students. It also sits in a nurturing political environment that emphasizes a forward-thinking approach to education. As Michelle Li, the opening speaker and secretary of education for Hong Kong explained, the city’s government is investing 20 percent of its budget towards education with an emphasis on technology and flexibility.

High on the list of priorities is a city-wide Wi-Fi network and a transferrable university credit system that allows students to take classes at various universities, both online and in-classroom, and to apply all earned credits towards a single degree. This flexible approach to education, Li argued, is the key to a socially mobile and productive society that is poised for the future.

Several keynote speakers framed the discussion over the two days of the conference. Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, Skyped in from Stanford University to speak about dramatically increasing access to education worldwide through massive open online courses (MOOCs). Coursera has enrolled over 20 million students from 190 countries, many of whom would otherwise not have access to or be able to afford traditional higher education.

David Wiley, co-founder of Lumen Learning, spoke of the potential for open-sourced and free text materials that dramatically reduce costs for students and facilitate the sharing of knowledge more efficiently than traditional textbooks.

During side sessions, I heard from representatives from universities in the Philippines, the United Kingdom, and China share their experiences with and best practices for operating online courses. A representative from the National Open University of Nigeria explained the myriad of ways that they have made education flexible: they offer classes online, over the telephone, and through radio broadcasts and the mail to reach as wide a population as possible.

Over the course of the conference, there was a palpable build-up of excitement over the sheer potential of open and online learning to change the fundamental paradigms of higher education. The prospects for democratizing access to education and reducing its costs are astounding. However, many questions remain. Will open and online courses retain the quality of a traditional classroom experience? How will online classes teach students soft skills such as teamwork and public speaking? What will online education mean for international exchange programs that facilitate the sharing of diverse ideas and backgrounds that are so critical for the development of new ideas and cross-cultural understanding? These questions do not appear to have clear-cut answers. Regardless, the future of open and online learning remains a new and exciting prospect in higher education that will have a lasting impact on human culture and understanding.