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The Pros and Cons of Online International Education

In this age of coronavirus, online education has become not just a luxury for those who want to study at home, but a necessity to ensure the health and safety of students and faculty members. 


For international students, online classes have also become some sort of a norm as some of them have gone back to their home countries at the start of the pandemic. With the consequent lockdowns imposed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus since last year, and the consequent inability of some global learners to go back to their respective institutions, remote online classes have become the go-to option in resuming international students’ programs.


As such, online classes particularly in the international education setting are necessary to keep HEIs afloat during the pandemic and to ensure that students’ studies do not come to a grinding halt. With most projections predicting lower enrollment in general for HEIs in the next few years, there is a clear need to pivot to accommodate changing circumstances. That pivot seems to point to online education platforms. 

As an international education advocate, I am aware that online classes present certain challenges. Although it is one way to somehow provide educational continuity amid a highly adverse situation, it also has some drawbacks that students and institutions need to deal with. 

In this article, I will discuss the pros and cons of online international education and offer some recommendations for students and HEIs to make the best of both worlds.

THE PROS

Learning outcomes

There is some debate over the issue of learning outcomes among college students who do remote classes. However, a recent study on online educational platforms shows that learning outcomes for students in an online course were about the same as those in in-person classrooms and blended instruction. 

The graph above shows that online learning actually resulted in a higher average assessment score than in-person and blended learning. This is an important finding, as international students in HEIs will want the assurance that they will receive the same benefits as when they study abroad. However, it should also be noted that student satisfaction was significantly lower than in-person instruction, which will be discussed further in the article.

Continued operations

One of the best arguments for online international education is pragmatism. The only way most HEIs can continue to serve their student population–both domestic and international–is through online instruction. Apart from border restrictions and safety concerns, HEIs are currently dealing with staff shortages as well as financial squeezes due to COVID-19 mitigation and the decline in revenue resulting from many students returning to campus.

 

That is simply the reality. HEIs cannot function as before for the foreseeable future because of these economic factors as evidenced by projections that became reality in a survey of HEIs. They reported COVID-19 spending between $5 and $335 million individually and between $4.3 and $28 million in lost revenue from auxiliary services such as room and board. Online offerings can somewhat mitigate these losses by providing students with a viable option for continued learning.

 

That is not to say that developing effective online courses does not have costs. However, it is possible for HEIs to cut back on these costs by teaming up and forming online course-sharing consortia. This is certainly a good approach to the “new normal” for HEIs, but I would argue for an even better approach that is even more forward-looking, and that is through pathway programs. I will discuss this in more detail further down the article.

Cost savings

Online education for international students entails considerable cost savings, not to mention a smaller carbon footprint. It eliminates transportation, living, and peripheral expenses associated with studying in a foreign country.

 

Of course, this does not translate to savings in tuition fees. The costs of developing an online program are considerable, so it is unlikely that students will experience any savings in that regard. Nevertheless, the overall and immediate financial impact of moving to online international education is attractive, and may even encourage students worried about the high costs of studying abroad. 

Preventing the brain drain

An interesting aspect of this shift to online learning is the decline in global migration. Many international students choose their host country partly to get access to a higher paying labor market, and a good portion of them stays after graduation to work in that country. 

Source: OECD

For countries such as New Zealand and Australia, the steady influx of international students that stay has fueled a welcome expansion of the population. However, the pandemic has effectively reduced that flow by as much as 80%, seriously affecting projected GDP growth. Some countries such as Canada are compensating for this by enacting policies to encourage net migration.


The upside of online programs is that developing countries that send international students to developed countries no longer have to do so. Students enrolled in HEIs in other countries can stay home while acquiring an international education. Although indirectly, this reduces what we refer to as the “brain drain,” or the flight of learned workers from a country to work in another. 

THE CONS

Decline in enrollment

While online education is definitely on the rise, particularly during the pandemic, about 72% of experts expected a decline in international student enrollment by the end of 2020. In fact, various surveys reveal that 47% of students are deferring enrollment for the next year while 13% are looking to enroll in another country from their first choice, and 22% are planning to cancel their study abroad plans altogether. A good reason for this decline is that many students remain skeptical of the efficacy of online education, mainly due to connectivity issues and their desire to acquire transversal skills.

Student employability

As mentioned earlier, while learning outcomes appear to be equivalent for online and in-person instruction, student satisfaction is much lower for online learning. This is understandable, as online learning prevents undergraduate students from having the “college” experience to which many look forward.

 

Additionally, they miss having the “international” experience and acquiring essential skills that can help them later in their career. Research suggests that going abroad to study can help people develop skills such as independence, decision-making, and the ability to manage change.

Source: ResearchGate

According to the Erasmus Impact Study, of international students surveyed, “95% saw an increase in confidence, 93% in curiosity, 90% in tolerance, and 89% in serenity.” However, these gains are exclusive to students that physically go to the host country. They were not observed in those participating in online courses from an HEI in another country while at home, although they are still technically international students.


Successful graduates of international education typically enjoy higher employability, whether they choose to attend online or in-person. However, online participants may not benefit from the acquisition of transversal skills, including language immersion, like learning a second language such as English. 

Economic impact

On the side of HEIs and countries, the problem with online education is the loss of revenue. While online modalities can mitigate the dip in international student enrollment, it will result in a significant reduction in indirect and induced revenues. In one report, France and Germany (which charge little to no tuition fees) will lose about US$14.5 billion each in revenues from international students. It is also important to note the loss of a significant number of jobs supported by international students, which declined by 42,294 (9.2%) in 2020.

 

On the side of the students, online education eliminates the option to work in the host country, which can subsequently contribute to the students’ career prospects post-graduation. There is also a smaller chance of obtaining long-term work visas or permanent residency in the host country.

Some thoughts

I have worked in the international education sector for many years, and have seen the need to maintain a delicate balance of all the factors to achieve success. The COVID-19 pandemic has been rather more disruptive than any upheaval in recent history, but the sector has proven to be sufficiently resilient to meet the challenge.

 

The pivot to online education has been quite challenging, to say the least. While there are advantages to doing remote classes, there are issues that need to be addressed as well. Will online education prove to be sustainable in the long run? I believe only time will tell, although, personally, I believe that a good balance of face-to-face interaction and remote learning can be the solution to current concerns.

 

I also believe that HEIs, agents, and students can have the best of both worlds with some cooperation and collaboration. Enter Pathway Programs

 

Pathway programs are reciprocal agreements between HEIs to share their curricula in a type of cross-participation of programs. HEIs can authorize their pathway program partners to deliver their curricula to local students to ensure they can use the credits they earn when and if they decide to continue their studies abroad. 

 

Students can take the first part of their program in their home country, which in most cases currently holds them online, but will most likely transition to in-person instruction more easily and earlier than their off-country partner HEIs.

 

By participating in pathway programs, HEIs can attract more students, students can save some money while earning an international education, and agents can convince more students and parents to sign on. When pandemic restrictions are no longer a factor, students are already committed to a program and ready and able to travel and live in the host country of the partner HEI.

 

Online international education has its pros and cons, but, yes, it is possible to take the pros and eliminate the cons. Pathways programs are a way to ensure that everyone comes out a winner on the other side of this pandemic. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)

#PartnerForLife #InternationalEducation #InternationalStudents #MSM

MSM VP Global Suneetha Qureshi

MSM Vice President - Global

Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As the Vice President of MSM Global, she leads MSM’s extensive back-of-the-house operations, including MSM’s human resources, financial management, information technology, and marketing, communications, and social media activities. 

 

She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.  

 

Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments. 

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Data Sources:

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