Online learning on the uptake in international education

We’ve reached a tipping point, warns industry consultant

In some countries, the user base of Duolingo has surpassed registered student counts at traditional English-as-a-foreign-language schools, says an industry consultant | M-SUR/Shutterstock

International education officials, beware: the next generation of web-enabled technologies is taking over the global market. According to an industry consultant, it’s now crucial for local schools to adapt and potentially benefit from the coming wave.

While Canada’s bricks-and-mortar institutions have not seen too much impact from online courses and schools, the figurative “tipping point” for students’ acceptance of online education appears to have been reached, says Mike Henniger, vice-president of sales and marketing at ICEF, an international education marketing and recruitment strategy consultancy.

“The key take we have from every research – especially in the last year – is that data shows that online learning has indeed tipped,” said Henniger. “We always hear that B.C. is doing very well [and] that we have to turn students away. Well, now would be a fantastic time to prepare, to be innovative and bring these technologies to our schools.”

Speaking at a BC Council for International Education conference last month, Henniger told participants of evidence that international students – who had resisted online courses up until two or three years ago – are changing their habits.

One example, said Henniger, is Duolingo, a free online platform that enables students to learn English and other languages. Duolingo currently has 150 million active users worldwide, with a monthly user base of 30 million. The user base in some countries (such as Brazil and Ukraine) has surpassed registered student counts at traditional English-as-a-foreign-language schools, said Henniger.

In the last two years, Duolingo has raised US$80 million in venture capital funding.

Other examples include Udacity and MicroMasters, which offer free or paid courses in certain sectors where employers demand a certain skill set. Udacity even guarantees students will find a job upon completing the online program or receive a full refund.

“It’s a very clearly articulated value proposition,” Henniger said. “Essentially, companies are going to Udacity and saying, ‘These are the skill sets that we need.’ What this course does is specifically develop a curriculum with hands-on learning to develop the skills and competencies that employers are looking for. It directly translates into jobs and it becomes a huge competitor for the education-sector space.”

Some of this competition can already be seen in the United States, where some traditional English-for-academic-purposes programs are seeing enrolments drop almost 50% this year. While other factors may be pushing foreign students away from the United States, the advent of online learning technology is clearly one emerging cause, Henniger said.

“When we ask international students what their decision-making process for choosing an institution is, what are the factors guiding their decisions, it’s almost always the experience, the lifestyle,” Henniger said. “The new learning experiences available online – the ability to take classes any time, any place, from famous professors but at your own pace – is driving online learning.”

Some local solutions are already ahead of the curve. Jim Clark, owner of the Canadian College of English Language, created an online curriculum called Smrt English. Today, the Vancouver-based digital program counts among its users 101,401 students, 3,359 teachers and 167 institutions globally.

Henniger said industry observers are already keeping a close eye on what’s beyond online technology. Augmented and virtual reality are identified as the potential “next big things” in international education, he said.

While Henniger recommends B.C. schools look ahead to a digital future, he stressed the end focus should always be on the students. Their experiences will ultimately determine the success of an institution – technology or not.

“What does it all mean? It means we have to ask ourselves: how can we use some of these things that the disruptors in our industry are doing? How do we help students develop the core competencies they are really looking for, and therefore increase access opportunities into our longer programs? How do we really demonstrate our return on investment, and how can we be more accessible?”