We all need to understand more about online learning


By Aimee Kleinman

Online learning has grown so much over the last decade. In the very early days everyone was talking about MOOCs and wondering what they’d become and now every UK university is moving teaching online, so they can continue operating during a global pandemic. The global online education market is forecast to reach a total market size of $319.167bn in 2025, increasing from $187.877bn in 2019, with the majority of this growth driven by North America.

But the value of the UK market is not known in as much detail. The strong international appeal of UKHE makes it more challenging to understand the true value of online learning and its potential. The ease of access to online learning creates a completely new market opportunity. Despite disparity in access to technology in different countries, the world is more connected than it’s ever been. This means more people have access to study wholly online.

As the UK turns the corner on a decade of youth population decline, if entry rates grow at the same rate by 2030 there could be more than 150,000 additional students wanting to enrol at UK universities. Online learning makes accommodating these students more feasible, realistic and affordable. Clearly, this will also impact on those wanting to continue study to postgraduate level. However, little is known about student behaviour when considering online learning. The student journey is very different to conventional routes. Application windows are mostly more flexible, admissions processes vary, traditional influencer networks are less likely to operate, conventional in-person recruitment activities are less likely to attract, and conversion is largely unknown.

There are a lot of questions that need answering so we’ve designed a new piece of research for the sector. Our aim is to understand the online learning market from both a student and provider perspective, so that we can better understand the current and future scope of the online learning market in the UK. We’re putting the students undertaking online learning in the UK at the heart of our research. We’ll focus on understanding their experiences, exploring how and why they make their decisions and what makes them choose a particular provider. We’ll also be looking at the specific options they have to choose from, so we can better understand and contextualise their decision making. League table position and existing institutional reputation clearly have a role to play in student decision making. This is magnified by the hyper selectiveness of some third-party online learning partners when they choose institutions to partner with. The wider impact of this partnership behaviour is not known in the student market however, so this research will examine the role of third-party platforms in student decision making.

We’ll explore the breadth of online distance learning provision from both a student and provider perspective and, importantly, we will also aim to understand the value perception of online learning from employers.

Specifically, we’ll look at:

– Product: examine volumes, different courses, subject type, pedagogical approaches and delivery platform.

– Price: gain an understanding of price points for platforms and how price points vary for courses across different subject areas and study levels and how this impacts on perceived value and price sensitivity.

– Place: learn about the value of physical place (location city/country) in relation to interactivity through platform, peer-to-peer engagement and face-to-face elements.

– Promotion: develop insight into where online learning is promoted, how integrated it is within wider campaign strategy and how much is spent.

– People: identify who’s involved in setting up, delivering, and managing ongoing engagement from a university perspective, we’ll also look at the audience – segments, their journey, and decision making criteria.

– Process: gain greater understanding around the digital student journey, for example, what processes are in place for admissions and applications, and what the student support and delivery experience looks like.

– Physical evidence: gain insight into the quality of platforms, service levels, UX and interface.

Each University that takes part in the process will receive a full written report of the research findings, focusing on the analysis of survey responses from their own student audience along with a comparison to the national sample and syndicated research – benchmarking their institution against the wider market and identifying points of parity and points of differentiation.