At no time in recent memory has the future of higher education received as much media attention as it has in the past several years. In 2012, major newspapers, magazines, television, and radio programs focused much of their analysis on the future of higher education. How will we learn in a digital, networked, globalized economy?
Business leaders have boldly declared education as the last field to globalize. Venture capital firms recognizing this opportunity, poured unprecedented capital and investment into the education sector.
Reports from Deloitte and McKinsey detail how today’s economy is fundamentally different from the economies that have previously emerged from periods of protracted economic slow downs. Businesses and society today require a work force that is highly educated and capable of creatively addressing complex problems through social and knowledge networks.
The prospect of getting a degree and then enjoying lifelong employment is now largely a quaint artifact representing the pinnacle of employment in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Today, constant learning is the norm in all sectors of society.
Unfortunately, the traditional university sector has been slow to respond to the dramatic change in learning needs and has become increasingly unsustainable. On campus programs continue to require substantial time and financial investment from students. Supporting these physical learning spaces requires greater and greater government investment.
In response, more agile and flexible universities – such as the open university model of the late 1960’s, which resulted in the founding of Athabasca University in 1970 – were created to address the needs of non-traditional learners. Today, more than half of the students in many education systems are non-traditional, often taking courses part time while employed and raising a family.
The future of the university is one of growing diversity, where the traditional student profile is replaced with continual and ongoing learning needs. As a result, online learning is now the fastest growing educational segment. Additionally, alternative credentialing models are far outpacing traditional credentialing and degrees.
In 2012, online learning exploded into public awareness, largely driven by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the advocacy of New York Times and other media prompting talk of a “disrupted education sector”. Online learning has long been recognized as producing equivalent learning outcomes as classroom learning. A certain stigma, though dwindling, still exists around online learning. With the entrance of elite systems, such as Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, into online education, this stigma is fading rapidly.
In the last several years, through visits to India, China, Australia, Argentina, Ecuador, South Africa, and numerous European, Canadian, and American universities, I’ve noticed a clear trend: Universities and governments around the world are investing aggressively to improve their capacity for online learning. Albertans can look on this trend with satisfaction, as Athabasca University has been a global leader in online learning for decades. The responsive, employment and research-focused learning that is now happening at Athabasca University is the model that other universities are starting to pursue.
For the government of Alberta, and all Albertans, this represents a critical juncture. World leading research, bringing together academic, entrepreneurial and economic and employment needs of a global advanced economy, have been a hallmark of Athabasca University since its founding. Now, while competing systems across Canada and around the world are turning to online learning, is not the time to reduce support and funding. The current government in Alberta has a unique opportunity to leverage and enhance existing investments and to continue flying the Alberta innovation flag globally.
George Siemens, PhD
Centre for Distance Education
 IBIS Capital: Global e-Learning Investment Review, 2013