The internet has opened new possibilities for education. Many different e-learning, online learning, and distance learning initiatives have been introduced; their main aim is to use the internet as a medium for the delivery of courses. While it cannot replace traditional education, online learning provides new possibilities for learning, especially when constraints of time and space impede physical attendance in class. At the same time, e-learning can support face-to-face education and create new forms of blended learning.
Traditionally, education has been governed by national institutions. The accreditation of educational institutions, the recognition of qualifications, and quality assurance are all governed at a national level. However, crossborder education requires the development of new governance regimes. Many international initiatives aim at filling the governance gap, especially in areas such as quality assurance and the recognition of academic degrees.
WTO and education
One controversial issue in the WTO negotiations is the interpretation of Articles I (3)b and (3)c of GATS, which specify exceptions from the free trade regime for government-provided services. According to one view, supported mainly by the USA and the UK, these exceptions should be treated narrowly, de facto enabling free trade in higher education. This view is predominantly governed by interests of the English-speaking educational sector to gain global market coverage in education, and has received considerable opposition from many countries.
Questions that may arise within the context of the WTO and other international organisations will focus on the dilemma of education as a commodity or a public good. If education is considered a commodity, the WTO’s free trade rules will be implemented in this field as well. A public goods approach, on the other hand, would preserve the current model of education in which public universities receive special status as institutions of importance for national culture. Trade liberalisation could have profound effects on online education.
The availability of online learning delivery systems and easy entry into this market has opened the question of quality assurance. A focus on online delivery can overlook the importance of the quality of materials and didactics. A variety of possible difficulties can endanger the quality of education. One is the easy entry of new, mainly commercially driven, educational institutions, which might lack or pay less attention to the necessary academic and didactical capabilities. Another problem of quality assurance is that the simple transfer of existing paper-based materials to an online medium does not take advantage of the didactic potential of the new medium. This aspect prompted education organisations to start to develop standards and guidelines for evaluating the design and the content of lectures delivered online.
The recognition of academic degrees and the transfer of credits
Recognition of degrees has become particularly relevant within the online learning environment. When it comes to online learning, the main challenge is the recognition of degrees beyond the regional context, mainly at global level.
The EU has developed a regulatory framework with the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). The Asia-Pacific region has introduced its own regional model for the exchange of students and a related credit system – the University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific (UMAP) programme.
In the evolving implementation of online learning, there is a tendency towards recognition and transfer of credits following traditional strategies for brick and mortar universities.
The innovation of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is also evolving, as the initial pervasive acceptance and hype cycle have run their course, and resources are being developed to provide the same or better personal interactions that are provided in traditional or blended learning educational systems.
The standardisation of online learning
The early phase of online learning development was characterised by rapid development and high diversity of materials, in the sense of platforms, content, and didactics. However, there is a need to develop common standards in order to facilitate the easier exchange of online courses and introduce a certain standard of quality.
Most standardisation is performed in the USA by private and professional institutions. Other, including international, initiatives are on a smaller scale.
ICT, education, and development
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include an ambitious education goal (Goal 4), which calls for inclusive and equitable quality education and ensuring life-long learning opportunities for all. Online education, e-learning, and blended learning play a crucial role in working towards goal 4 as well as many of the other SDGs. A useful overview of these linkages is provided in the form of a matrix linking the WSIS action lines with the SDGs. This further underscores the importance of ICT for education.