Lentis/Higher Education Online

Higher education online is the teaching and learning of college-level material through internet-based infrastructure. Online education presents a myriad of socio-technical implications that are worth considering. This page will focus on three of the major e-learning delivery methods and their business models, the demographics of e-learners, and how employers and universities perceive the quality and longevity of online education.



Higher education online consists of taking college-level courses delivered over the internet, either synchronously through videoconferencing and chat rooms or asynchronously through email, discussion boards, and forums [1]. Students can receive fully accredited degrees online, take individual web-based classes, or supplement their traditional education with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

In 2012, three of the world's most popular MOOC platforms were launched: Udacity (Feb 2012), Coursera (April 2012), and edX (May 2012). These platforms utilize database and Content Management System (CMS) technologies in order to store course content, user demographics, and electronic grading records [2]. By overcoming enrollment limitations of traditional classrooms, MOOCs allow hundreds of thousands of students to take classes that would be otherwise unavailable on such a large scale.

Georgia Tech launched the world's first entirely online degree program from an accredited university in January 2014. A class of 375 students began coursework towards a master's degree in computer science for under $7,000, rivaling the traditional master's program cost of nearly $45,000 for on-campus students [3]. Today, 22 of the top 25 universities in US News World Report rankings are offering individual courses or full degree programs through online infrastructure [4].

The professor is moving from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.” -Dr. Joe Boland, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Distance Learning [1]

Adoption of Online LearningEdit

Though online courses first appeared in the 1980s, widespread adoption only began at the turn of the century. In the United States, the number of students taking at least one online course rose from 1.5 million to almost 7 million between 2002 and 2014[5]. The proportion of students taking at least one online course is currently at an all-time high of 32 percent. Put in perspective, more students take online courses than attend schools with varsity football teams, and online learners outnumber the total number of graduate students in the country. E-learning has spread to several countries and its growth in countries like India, China, Brazil, Malaysia and Colombia has outpaced US growth[6]. Primary users of online learning are nontraditional students, supplemental learners, and adopters in developing countries.

Some statistics suggest that the trend of rapid adoption may stagnate. While enrollment rates in online courses at colleges and universities in the United States has outpaced growth in overall higher education enrollment[7], rates for individual years were uneven. In 2005, enrollment in online courses spiked by over 30%; however in 2014 enrollment went up only 3.7%, the lowest in a decade [8]. This may indicate that the technology does not currently carry enough value to usurp traditional 2 and 4-year colleges, or that some potential learners are not equipped to take full advantage of these educational tools.

In 2020, the online education industry experienced explosive growth driven by self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. But even before the pandemic, the world online education market showed active growth and, according to some forecasts, by 2025 the volume of investments in online education was to reach $ 350 billion[9].

Nontraditional StudentsEdit

Nontraditional students are generally older with more responsibilities. Online courses provide flexibility to students who manage a complicated balance of work, family, and school in order to evade unemployment or the low wages afforded to those without a college degree. Nontraditional students are characterized as students who face a combination of factors that increase their risk of not completing their degree. These students typically did not enroll in college immediately after higher school, are 25 years or older, have dependent children or elders, are married (or are a single parent), enroll part-time, or work full-time[10].

Supplemental LearnersEdit

An increasing number of students perceive online courses as cost-effective options to supplementing their traditional education. Online learning platforms like Khan Academy have gained popularity for providing free high-quality instructional videos to help students better understand material taught in their college classes. While for-profit, four-year institutions have seen a significant drop in enrollment in recent years, the number students taking online courses at non-profit public and private universities has consistently increased. At the same time, students enrolled exclusively in online courses make up less than 20% of overall online learners [11]. Together, these statistics imply that students taking at least one online course while at traditional 4-year schools make up a significant portion of new online learners.

Students in Developing CountriesEdit

Proponents hope that college-level courses distributed online will eliminate economic, geographic and social barriers to higher education. However, while 40% of Coursera students are from developing countries, 80% of those students already have college degrees, indicating that online courses are not reaching truly disadvantaged populations[12]. One of the reasons is that a majority of online courses are designed for students seeking to learn a new subject or better understand material they are being taught elsewhere. Meanwhile, many underserved populations do not have the basic education that is a necessary prerequisite for students to be able to explore these topics. Also, many developing countries still lack the internet infrastructure that would allow easy access to online courses, making commitment difficult. However, Andrew Ng, founder of Coursera, has addressed these demographic trends:

"We’re fully committed to granting everyone a great education, and we recognize that we have a long way to go with regard to our long-term mission"[13].

Business Models of Online EducationEdit

Online education platforms operate on both for-profit and not-for-profit business models. Many providers rely on initial investments to get started, but must identify sustainable revenue streams in order to continue offering quality courses at low-to-no cost to users.


Two of the "big three" MOOC providers, Coursera and Udacity, are for-profit organizations that split earnings with the universities affiliated with their courses. In addition to offering free classes, Coursera provides users with the option to receive verified certification at a charge of $30-$70 per course [14]. Udacity has made its corporate training services a primary focus of revenue; to date, Google has enrolled 80,000 of its employees in Udacity's HTML5 course [15]. Traditional universities offering online education on a course-by-course basis typically offer for-credit classes at a per credit hour charge. Furthermore, some universities charge tuition rates based on full online degree programs or "hybrid" programs that blend in-classroom and web-based learning.


Led by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, edX is the largest not-for-profit MOOC provider. Both Harvard and MIT made an initial investment of $30 million and revenue is currently generated from universities who sign partnerships with edX to create more edX courses. There is no advertising on the edX website or during its course videos. This platform also serves as a leading researcher of online education, studying user behavior in order to increase retention and completion rates [16].

Other possible revenue venues include platform licensing, course design and consulting, paid examination, and personalized student profiles. The global MOOC market was valued at $1.13 billion in 2014. This value is projected to grow to $7.69 billion by 2019, as more MOOC providers discover how to generate revenue while still offering widely affordable education [17].

Perceptions of Online Degrees by EmployersEdit

Despite a lack of evidence that online and traditional degree holders perform differently in the workplace[18], a stigma exists around hiring online degree holders across all industries. Almost all (96%) of hiring executives said they would hire an applicant with a traditional degree over one with an online degree for a management or entry-level position in accounting, engineering, business, and information technology[19]. Similar results were found in the healthcare and academia industries, with a significant concern cited that scientific content and laboratory work are difficult to teach online. However, community colleges are much more likely to hire a faculty member with an online degree. Since an employer's attitude towards online education is more positive if he or she has had experience with it[20], community colleges (which often have online course offerings) are more accepting of online degrees than other industries.

Other research firms found more positive results when evaluating job prospects for online degree holders. Eduventure reported that 62% of employers see online education as equal or better than classroom learning[21]. Popular media such as newspapers, magazines and websites often publish these results, but the private research firms do not disclose their research methods or analysis of data and are commissioned by specific organizations, making them susceptible to biases.

Even though some research shows that online degrees are equal or better in quality than traditional degrees[22], the negative perceptions held by potential employers will continue to put online degree holders at a disadvantage in the job market. However, the negative perception is changing with time. Some employers consider online learners more self-disciplined than traditional learners, and the addition of top-ranked institutions to the online education landscape has helped improve its perception[23].

Traditional Universities and Online LearningEdit

The number of traditional universities launching online education platforms has grown significantly in the last decade. Cost-effectiveness is a major motivator for consumers of online education, but institutions cited improving access far and above cost reduction as the motivation for developing and implementing online programs. These programs are expected to continue to grow in the future. Of the institutions with existing infrastructure, 83% anticipate an increase in enrollment over the next year. However, colleges and universities struggle to convince their faculty members of the value of online learning, and faculty are reluctant to invest the extra time and resources needed to develop and teach an online course[24].

Will Online Learning Replace Traditional Higher Education?Edit

With enrollment increasing and perceptions of online degrees improving, the question of whether online learning will serve as a disruptive technology is an on-going debate in the academia world. Some believe that as online education advances, it will make traditional higher education obsolete. The reduced cost, more individualized and flexible structure allows students to focus on the skills and subjects where their interests lie, and some groups argue this overcomes certain limitations of a traditional classroom setting[25]. Google, a company known for its hiring success, has stopped asking for transcripts as part of its application and is hiring more people without a college degree. Executives at Google believe the classroom setting can be artificial and prepares students to be successful only in a certain environment[26].

Others do not feel threatened by the momentum online learning has gained. Comprised mostly of university leaders, professors, and people who received a traditional education themselves, this group holds that students will always find value in the "university experience" and the life skills that come with it. Interpersonal relationships, leadership skills, and the natural exchange of ideas are elements of a traditional classroom setting that have not yet been emulated by online degree programs[27]. The number of institutions citing online learning as a critical element of their long-term strategy declined in 2013 for the first time since the widespread emergence of online education[28], suggesting that colleges and universities view online learning as a temporary movement rather than a systematic change in pedagogy.


Higher education online will continue to impact the way students around the world learn and develop skills before and after entering the workforce. Flexibility, accessibility, cost-effectiveness and instructional quality have allowed more people than ever before to pursue higher education. However, low retention and completion rates and the difficulty of developing interpersonal skills online are challenges still facing online education. A hybrid model that combines effective elements of both online and traditional higher education will likely emerge as the most effective and accepted method[25].

Considerations for further research on higher education online include:

  • Future development of student-student and student-teacher interactions within online learning platforms
  • How to best assess students on their comprehension of the material
  • Ways to combat cheating
  • How online education can be made more accessible to students in developing countries


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