The Future of Open Education

The last decade has seen a massive shift in how educators, learners and institutions view open education. While learning from notable professors at prestigious institutions was once only available to the lucky few who had the grades and financial resources to gain admission, the pendulum has swung toward making information available to people all over the world.

Lectures previously only heard by dozens of students in a lecture hall are now being viewed by hundreds of thousands of learners on laptops and smartphones in dining rooms and trailer parks and office conference rooms in every continent. Instead of looking across the lectern at twenty-somethings in sweatpants, instructors are now delivering their courses to overachieving middle schoolers, stay-at-home parents, ladder-climbing executives and retired octogenarians.

While study groups were formerly limited to meeting up at the local coffee shop or grabbing a table in the campus library, learners from across multiple time zones and oceans are commenting on forum posts, chatting about assignments online and collaborating on group projects. Open education has made borders, socioeconomic levels, race, gender and native language irrelevant when it comes to learning.

Now that the horses are out of the barn and courses from Ivy League colleges, prestigious technical institutes and other name-brand universities are available to everyone, the future of open education can be summed up in one word: more. More courses available, more institutions offering them, more students taking them and more employers recognizing the achievements attained in an open, online world.

What follows is a look at some of the trends in open education and what learners can expect to see in the not-too-distant future.

Validation, Recognition and Legitimacy

Today online learners have access to thousands of courses offered by hundreds of colleges and other institutions. Many include online assessments and homework assignments, such as quizzes, research papers and blog posts, and a significant number of courses offer some form of certification upon completion, be it a free “honor code certificate” or a paid “verified certificate.”

Far fewer courses offer students not already enrolled at the institution to receive actual course credit, although there are notable exceptions including Georgia Tech’s online MS in Computer Science program and Harvard Extension School credits available for some courses on EdX. And while some forward-thinking employers are beginning to embrace MOOCs as a legitimate method for achieving certification in a given skill, many still look to the far more expensive options available from professional education organizations.

Going forward, there are indicators that this may be changing:

Linking up with LinkedIn

LinkedIn, which has nearly replaced resumes as the definitive source of job hunter bonafides, introduced Direct-to-Profile Certifications. In partnership with Coursera, EdX,, Pearson, Skillsoft, Udacity and Udemy, learners that complete and pass an online course are able to automatically add the certification to their profile. This verified addition rewards learners for finishing the course and prevents others from claiming the achievement without doing the work.

Bring on the Biometrics

Some online platforms are now implementing Signature or Premium Tracks. These authenticate that the learner is indeed who they claim to be and prevent people from taking classes on behalf of another. These options come at a cost but may allay the concerns of employers or institutions that online learning is a haven for cheaters.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are working with the American Council on Education on advancing efforts to award college credit to students completing MOOCs. In 2013, seven colleges including the University of Maryland, Central Michigan University and SUNY-Empire State College, began to offer credits as part of a study. This is one of several initiatives around the country to make credit-granting MOOCs a more common reality.

State Support

In California, Bill 520 was passed by the state government to allow students at the University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges to receive credit for certain online courses.

Credit Transfers

Between online-only colleges and universities, there is already a number of credit exchanges designed to keep costs down for students and accelerate degree granting. For example, Western Governors University, Capella, California Southern University and the University of Phoenix all accept credits from StraighterLine.

The Full Degree

Full degree programs are still a relative rarity in the world of education, but Georgia Tech’s Master of Science in Computer Science program is a notable member of the pioneering class of traditional institutions providing entire degrees program online. For example, Southern Methodist University just announced they too will offer an online Master of Science in Computer Science program, and Northwestern University is bringing their counseling master’s degree online as well.

Evolving Technology

While online education is still associated with students tethered to their desktop or laptop computers, the surging popularity of mobile devices has already changed how learners are interacting with material, as they are able to access courses anytime and anywhere. But beyond the device, none of the platforms are standing still as they continue to evolve how online education is delivered.

The following are some examples of recent and upcoming developments in how technology is changing for open education:

Less Linear Lectures

Researchers from Harvard University, MIT and the University of Rochester developed LectureScape, dubbed the “YouTube for MOOCs.” With this technology, course providers can see exactly when students are watching videos and which parts they are skipping on a second-by-second basis, and technology also empowers students to skip to the parts they are most interested in. The goal behind this is to increase the value proposition for learners while helping educators optimize their offerings.

A Touchscreen World

Point-and-click is largely going by the wayside as more and more online experiences are being tailored for users of touchscreen devices. It is safe to assume that online open education will follow as classes, labs and homework assignments start to take this interaction model into consideration when designing courses.


The concept of using video game-style incentives and rewards has crept into quite a few non-gaming areas in recent years, and there’s no reason that online education platforms can’t utilize these as well. From leaderboards to leveling-up by achieving different goals, gamification can increase engagement, retention and completion rates.

Big Data

For many institutions offering open education to learners, they are as interested in the data they can gather from these courses as they are in educating the masses. Studying and analyzing how online students are utilizing the open education offerings “will accelerate the redefinition of courses, credits, and degrees. And, thanks to the data generated from online activities, analytics will become more sophisticated and more widely adopted, improving student choice and success through degree planning and advising systems, as well as providing early alerts triggering interventions for at-risk students.”

3D Printing

Another new technology that may help learners and educators span the digital chasm is by utilizing 3D printing technology. Increasingly affordable and available, it may transform how labs are completed and assignments are evaluated.

Changes in Content Format

As online learning is evolving, so to is what is being presented to students. While it was straightforward to record or stream lectures and post the same types of exams that instructors were using in traditional in-class formats, learners should expect new developments as research and data identifies what tactics work better for online learners.

The following are some examples of trending changes to open online education:

Shorter Videos

Studies have shown that engagement with online videos drops after six minutes. Look for fewer hour-plus lectures and more bite-size videos covering discrete topics. These may just be edited versions of a single lecture, but it matches the short attention span nature of online interaction.

A Mix of Visuals

Today, many videos are an endless slideshow while others are just video of the lecturer’s talking head. Look for more videos to combine slides and the face of the lecturer to keep learners tuned in.

On-Screen Live-Action Writing

Apparently there’s a reason teachers write on the board while they teach instead of having everything already up there – it keeps students engaged. Look for more courses to adopt this Khan Academy presentation style.

More Humanities

Humanities have been the “weak link” in open education for institutions that are offering any type of certification or credit due to the reliance on human graders (which have both cost and variable quality issues). As institutions look to broaden their offerings and attract more women and less technical students, their courses will need to include courses covering the full spectrum of what is offered to students on campus.

Personalization and Individualized Learning

Just as this has become a focus in the K-12 universe, online offerings will use the feedback they receive from students (such as which questions they answer correctly on quizzes and which modalities they prefer) to adapt the flow of courses for the individual student. For example, if a student takes a quiz and does not correctly answer a few computational questions, they may be directed to a remedial lesson after the quiz while a learner who answers the questions correctly may be advanced to the next subject.

More Courses from Nontraditional Sources

There is already a wealth of online educational resources being generated outside of colleges and universities, from Google teaching developers how to use their APIs to chefs teaching aspiring cooks how to perfect a souffle. The breadth of these offerings will continue to grow in the future, whether it is hobbyists posting their how-tos on YouTube or companies training people how to utilize their products or niche aggregators building up destination sites on specific subjects such as crafts or gardening.

Reigning in Openness

While MOOCs have an open door policy, the emergence of SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses), HOOCs (Hybrid Open Online Courses) and other formats that leverage online and open courseware cannot be ignored. There is still a level of discomfort with decoupling instruction from instructors and offerings that use the best of open and online while including instructors, admissions prerequisites and other more traditional classroom elements.

Leveling the Playing Field

Before the advent of open online education, attaining mastery of different skills and disciplines was limited to those with the time, resources and access to attend classes in person and pay the tuition or fees for degrees and certifications. With MOOCs and other online offerings growing in availability, diversity and acceptance, there may already be a revolution in the works.

Enabling learners to study what they want, when they want and where they want, online open education creates a world where individuals can advance more quickly through the ranks of their current professions by continuing their education without dropping out of the workforce to go back to school or spending their nights and weekends attending classes at a local college. This allows workers to continually expand their knowledge, improve the quality of their work and provide more value to their employers.

Just as many firms today look for an MBA or some other post-graduate certification to validate an employee’s readiness for a more senior role, this may be replaced or augmented by individuals presenting proof that they have completed courses online at little to no cost. Likewise employers may leverage these offerings by encouraging their employees to complete specific courses or even facilitating this themselves in a SPOC setting.

For those unsatisfied with their current fields and longing to pivot into a new career, open online education presents a unique opportunity to explore new areas without any risk or expense. By taking courses online potential job-switchers can both properly gauge their interest in a new area as well as measure their proficiency and aptitude in a new discipline before making the transition. And, assuming they do decide to make the leap, job seekers in a new area can bolster their credentials and tell a richer story to potential employers by completing courses relevant to their new industry.

Regardless of the motivation, online open education is creating a world where everyone has the opportunity to increase their expertise, bolster their resume or “scratch the itch” to explore something new. With offerings from the best colleges and universities in the world available alongside very specific training from subject matter experts in practical skills, aspiring learners will be able to educate themselves in just about anything.