How Online Can Learn From the Airline Industry

Global and regional alliances of colleges offering online programs can help higher education institutions navigate the future, Mark Lester writes.

June 27, 2018

There doesn’t seem to be a month that goes by lately without another British university entering the online degree market, mirroring similar movement in the United States. The number working with online program management companies in the United Kingdom has grown from seven to 15 in just two years, and more are coming. That sector is growing fast in the U.S., too, as “Inside Digital Learning” wrote recently.

Demographic decline in the local undergraduate population combined with rising competition in the postgraduate sector is driving universities into new internationalization strategies to sustain budget surpluses, which also offers universities a new way to gain essential experience designing and delivering online education. But what are the current challenges to this sector and can we take inspiration from a different sector to surmount those challenges and forge ahead?

The assumption of new entrants to the online degree market is that it will be big enough for everyone; all the universities will be able to take a slice of the burgeoning demand for postgraduate education and lifelong learning worldwide. But as any OPM or MOOC platform will tell you, recruiting international students to online qualifications is not always simple. There is already a glut of options in the online M.B.A. market, and expanding into regions with huge unmet demand, such as China and India, is challenging because of significant pricing, cultural and regulatory barriers.

With most universities entering the online market at similar price points, there is an ever-growing risk of a shakeout as students seek out the top branded providers. So where would that leave the dozens of universities stuck in the middle, with relatively unknown brands internationally? The answer may well be servicing a narrow slice of their local undergraduate and postgraduate market.

One way out of the anonymous middle in the online market for postgraduate and lifelong learning may lie in the example of the airline industry.

Major national airlines, when faced with regulatory and cost barriers to international expansion, have formed alliances to open up new markets. Through alliance networks, individual airlines have been able to:

  • Offer their passengers a larger and denser global network of destinations with smoother connections.
  • Sell tickets to destinations across the entire alliance network, increasing the utility of the airline to their customers.
  • Offer valuable frequent-flier programs, which benefit their own customers and also bring alliance partner customers to the airline.
  • Win new customers and improve their quality perception from alliance promotion.

Universities might be able to secure some of the same benefits from alliance formation. This has already happened in research as universities pooled resources to win a larger share of research grants and for sharing services. This could now be about to happen in the online qualification space.

In the last three years, we have seen the emergence of small global alliances. One example is the PluS Alliance between King’s College London (U.K.), Arizona State University (U.S.) and University of New South Wales (Australia). This alliance, which is focused on tackling global challenges, also aims to increase the flow of students between the institutions and globalize their education, and they are co-marketing their online qualifications through the alliance website.

In the MOOC space, there are also informal alliances emerging, such as one announced in 2016 between the University of Queensland, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, the Australian National University, Boston University and several others to create a MOOC-based credit transfer system. These would be designed to enable students to gain credit toward their degrees from online courses at the other institutions and thereby open up new revenues and recruitment channels.

On FutureLearn, Deakin and Griffith Universities, both in Australia, are collaborating on a short course series on research methods designed to create a shared recruitment pathway into their respective institutions.

Alliances of these kind offer their constituent partners the potential to expand the range and depth of subjects they can offer, enrich the experiences of their online students, open the potential for students to personalize their learning by aggregating modules taken across alliance partners, and attract new students using joint online pathway courses and alliance marketing. By collaborating, universities can also defray the high up-front costs of course development.

To forge such alliances is not without its challenges. Universities need to be clear on the value of their combined proposition to the target students, ensure faculty members on all sides are sincerely committed, work out how each alliance partner’s interests are aligned and supported, and find ways to agree on common standards to recognize learning undertaken across institutions and jurisdictions.


Mark Lester is director of partnerships at FutureLearn.


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