5 takeaways on the future of online education and global development

Photo by: Mimi Thian / Unsplash / CC0

As expanding internet access and other information technology advances improve the uptake of online education globally, e-learning is poised to make huge contributions to global development, boosting education systems in low- and middle-income countries, improving student diversity, and helping practitioners strengthen their skills and advance their careers.

To find out more, Devex teamed up with education technology leader 2U to poll more than 1,300 global development professionals about their current and future learning needs, how online education could help meet them, and how to overcome barriers standing in their way. Here are the top five things we learned.

1. Online education can address global development education gaps

Only a quarter of professionals believe the education and learning opportunities they need to advance their career in international development are currently available and accessible. The challenge is even greater in the Middle East and North America, where just 19% and 20% of respondents, respectively, believe they have access to the right educational opportunities.

Given over half of respondents are also convinced that in five years’ time, the kinds of education, knowledge, and skills required for work around the globe would be significantly different, this suggests the sector could be heading for a serious skills gap. This is in spite of the fact that 67% of respondents believe lifelong education and learning are essential in advancing a global development career.

2. Experienced and senior professionals need more training and education opportunities

Insufficient investment in education and training for more experienced and senior professionals threatens to exacerbate this, with just under half of respondents saying that the public and private sectors are currently not investing enough to prepare them for the future. Survey responses suggest that only around a third of development organizations, corporations, and NGOs have an education and training budget in place to support professional development. That rises to 44% for development consulting firms. Even among donor agencies — arguably one of the better-resourced organization types — half of polled workers say training and education is not sufficiently invested in.

3. The relevance and value of online graduate-level degrees is increasing

At the same time, online education is increasingly seen as a viable option for advanced education — 67% of respondents believe the value and relevance of online graduate-level degrees will increase over the next five years. The survey results also show that while one-fifth of those polled already hold an online degree, this figure will likely rise given that more than half of people are open to pursuing one in the future.

While over half of development professionals are in favor of a campus-based degree as a means to advance their global development career, 41% are confident the same could be said of online graduate-level degrees. Short, nondegree level online courses lasting six to 12 weeks also hold significant value among almost half of respondents.

4. Online education can expand learning opportunities for all, particularly for those in LMICs

Where online education really comes into its own is in LMICs, with a staggering 88% of respondents believing it holds tremendous potential to expand learning opportunities for those in such locations. Another 83% — rising to 89% for respondents working at NGOs — state that online learning could specifically help bridge a gap in higher education between low- and high-income countries. Three-quarters of respondents believe online education can improve student body diversity and create stronger educational environments. However, respondents are divided by location, with only 59% based in North America agreeing with the statement while this rises to 84% of respondents based in Africa.

5. Costs and limited funding options are the main barriers to online education

Before online education can realize its potential in global development, several barriers must be overcome. Costs and limited funding options appear to be the biggest barriers, with just under a quarter of respondents citing them as an obstacle, closely followed by poor connectivity. Lack of time, question marks over the quality of online education, and limited credibility or recognition for online degrees were flagged as barriers by just 16% of respondents. Only a fifth were concerned by a lack of face-to-face interaction, suggesting that the model of remote learning has already won practitioners over.

For online education to reach its potential in the global development sector, respondents propose certain action points. Top of the list, according to just under a quarter of respondents, was for online education providers to improve the affordability of online courses.

Currently, a three- to six-year online Bachelor of Science degree in international development from the London School of Economics and Political Science costs more than £1,500 ($1,800) per year. A student living in Kenya would also expect to pay nearly $2,509 plus examination fees to take a five-month module in conflict and development as part of a postgraduate diploma in development management or a postgraduate certificate in conflict and development at The Open University.

Another 22% call for courses to be more focused, targeting geographic regions and specific sectors such as health or agricultural development, while 19% wanted improved interpersonal learning and interaction.

With the vast majority of respondents already embracing online education or at least recognizing its benefits for global development, making these changes could usher in a new era for professional development, with online learning not only helping practitioners develop the skills to make a bigger difference but helping the sector achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 4, to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all.

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