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Upgrade: How online learning can enhance education

The incorporation of online learning tools such as MOOCs within the education system, and their use outside, has great potential to enhance the learning experience. In this post we explore some ideas on this, including a few examples where this is already happening.

At school

Providing extension learning for higher-ability students
Online learning makes it easier to stretch academically advanced students with more demanding material. In principle, this group is well-suited to MOOCs given the belief that MOOCs work best for those who are highly motivated to learn and capable of self-study.

Allowing pupils to try out university
Access to online university courses allow students to get a feel for the university experience, and make informed choices about what and where they want to study. It is arguably better to try a subject and discover it is not suitable at a small cost, than to make a significant investment that it is hard to reverse at a later date.

Given this, there are perhaps grounds for universities being required to make some lectures available online, so that students can see what is on offer (although the content might need to be specifically tailored for this audience).

Indeed, this may happen anyway with the greater emphasis on student choice and increasing attention many universities are already giving to their marketing efforts in the current funding climate (e.g. university fairs, open and applicant days). Online courses that prepare people for University already exist such as this course by Future Learn, a company owned by the Open University.

At university

Making higher education more flexible
Putting lectures online allows greater flexibility in when students study. Three possible implications of this are:

1. Allowing students to control the pace of their studies
With funding of higher education in the UK changing it may not always be the default for young people to move straight from school onto a three year programme of study. Online resources may make it possible for young people to access learning from higher education courses informally as they move straight in to work. They could also make it easier for mature students to deal with time constraints from other commitments such as work and children.

More people may choose to study courses part-time later in life, or commit to minimising costs incurred by moving through courses more quickly than the traditional three years, with long summer breaks to allow for work to fund studies. This could cause tension with other students, academic staff and the norms of the institution.

2. Allowing greater interdisciplinarity in studies
In a sense, lectures act as a bottleneck as everybody on the course needs to attend them, so putting them online opens up the possibility for students to cover a mix of disciplines in their degrees, allowing more varied subject choices, and hopefully leading to more creative students overall.

Work would have to be done on how such varied studies coalesce into a degree, although interdisciplinary degrees such as UCL’s BASc Arts & Sciences are making such diversity work in practice already.

3. Providing additional course material
Online learning resources provide the potential to extend learning by allowing students to take additional modules or explore supplementary material. This may have the same learning outcomes as the previous two points, but could occur outside of formal course structures and accreditation.

Students may choose to learn more for the benefit of the learning experience and not the qualification. Such additional studies may not be accredited, but are a relevant consideration when students apply for jobs, particularly at interview stages.

Recognising and rewarding teaching excellence
Good teaching is not necessarily recognised within universities. Often this is because it has, until recently, led to no visible public output, unlike journal publications.

The growing focus on student choice and the potential for online learning to form a key part of how universities market themselves, combined with teachers having the technology to make their lectures publicly available may help create a job market that provides greater recognition of, and rewards for, teaching talent. Ultimately it is hoped that the greater rewards for teaching will help improve teaching overall.

There are already examples where the use of technology is (admittedly in a different context) creating a market for teaching where the most popular are able to earn large rewards. In Hong Kong top tutors are gaining significant followings by interacting with thousands of students remotely and in the States some tutors such as New York based Anthony Green can charge up to $1000 an hour for Skype lessons.

The existence of national examination standards in many countries generates large markets that technology allows tutors to service - markets where those recognised for teaching excellence can earn big rewards from the wealthiest buyers.

The equality issues inherent in private tuition aside, as universities typically set their own exams which are sat by far smaller numbers of people there are arguably fewer commercial opportunities of this nature in higher education. This may suggest that the largest rewards in this area will go to those who develop online courses that they are able to sell to a number of universities or students.

Outside formal institutions

Another role for online learning is people in work engaging in learning skills they feel are relevant for their ambitions without being enrolled in the formal institutions.

This may be particularly relevant in some creative fields such as music as; a) this is an area where people are often judged on capabilities and outputs rather than qualifications, so course accreditation and completion is perhaps less important; and b) these are also sectors where content is ever increasingly digitally produced, thus lending themselves naturally to online learning.

For example, it is possible to learn a huge amount on computer programming and music production from online resources. In other fields the tradition of requiring particular qualifications is stronger and likely to endure, particularly in areas where formal job applications require initial sifting and qualifications provide a workable way to do so.


Online resources make such a difference to scaling that their effects are potentially wide ranging even outside of institutions. They also open up new dimensions for competition and rewards in education which have the potential to disrupt existing arrangements.

Navigating what could be a revolution without losing what is valuable about traditional structures is both a challenge and opportunity for policy making. This should not be seen as an ‘either or’ situation, and there are many ways that online learning can be used to enhance more traditional forms of education.

Qualifications are not going away in some fields, but they have always been culturally of less importance in others, and online learning can also change learning outside formal institutions. The scope of things that can be taught successfully online may also expand, with the advent of low cost virtual reality systems like Oculus rift creating a new medium for teaching.

This is just the beginning, both of the potential of online learning and the adaptation of our learning and employment cultures to these issues.


John Davies

John Davies

John Davies

Principal Data Scientist, Data Analytics Practice

John was a data scientist focusing on the digital and creative economy. He was interested in the interface of economics, digital technology and data.

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Oliver Quinlan

Oliver Quinlan

Oliver Quinlan

Head of Impact and Research, Raspberry Pi Foundation

Oliver was a programme manager for Nesta’s digital education projects. He is now Head of Impact and Research at the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

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