07/23/2014 02:59 EDT | Updated 09/22/2014 05:59 EDT

The Future of Universities: Hands-On vs. Online

Recent graduates are off to the races. That is, competing for under-supplied entry-level jobs in their field and contemplating their opportunities for further education.

Earlier this month The Economist ran a feature on the future of universities assessing Massive Open Online Courseware (MOOCs) as a likely alternative to an "overstretched, expensive model of higher education" with "low startup costs and powerful economies of scale."

Today open courseware offered by education leaders like edX (offered through Harvard and MIT), and Coursera (Stanford) are open to students around the world. Researchers and theorists propose that online courseware makes it easier for students to share material and for instructors to develop/improve their programs. Platforms allow students flexibility when it comes to semester schedule, time, and location, as well as ways to easily engage with students and professors via text-based question forums; but are these things that students are seeking?

As we continually develop the way both public and private education is offered it is essential to have an idea of what students are really looking for, and how the education model satisfies their desire for continuing education.

We dug in to see what changes students are looking for in the future of higher education. In a survey of 1,228 Canadian students and youth, yconic asked about their attitudes and expectations when it comes to pursuing post-secondary education.

In testing online courses more broadly (free or offered through a traditional education platform) 28 per cent said they would consider online studies, replacing the on-campus experience. When we look at results for those 23 to 29 year olds (n=356), this number jumped to 45 per cent.

However, the on-campus experience still prevails. Nearly all (93 per cent) younger students currently in high school or post-secondary education and seeking a degree said they were planning on taking courses on campus.

Satisfaction among those already enrolled in traditional, on-campus post-secondary school is relatively high. Seventy-two per cent of current students or recent graduates said that they were satisfied with their post-secondary experience.

By asking students and recent grads about what they're looking for in further education we can see that post-secondary institutions may not have to worry yet.

But the education industry should pay close attention to what they do want, whether delivered on-campus or via online properties. Students would like to see increased opportunity for on-the-job experience (83%), increased interaction with instructors (78%) and lower tuition fees (81%).

Implicit in these findings is that today's students see post-secondary education as necessary to future career opportunities. This frame helps to understand why so many students and young people are planning to pursue a second (or third) degree.

Why Post-Secondary School?

  • 42% - To increase career opportunities
  • 39% - To get a good job or better job
  • 35% - To increase my earning potential and ultimately make more money
  • 30% - To discover and explore my interests
  • 26% - Feel like it is the logical next step after high school

Defining a Target for Online Course Offerings

For the average high school graduate entering university/college for the first time the campus experience is still paramount. Nearly half, 46 per cent of students requested "no change" when it comes to online/digital course offerings.

Revealed in edX student statistics - age and level of education are important in measuring student participation in online open courseware. More than two-thirds of registrants already have a bachelor's or post graduate degree.

As graduates continue to pursue the career of their dreams, online courseware presents a significant opportunity for retraining. Around half (48 per cent) of students and young people surveyed said they would consider taking an online course if it would save on travel.

The Digital Degree?

As The Economist outlines, there are many barriers to success of open courseware as a replacement for traditional post-secondary institutions. While online courseware presents a response to some of the issues facing students today, digital course offerings are not the top priority of today's incoming students.

It is important that we get it right for the generation that will shape our work force and policy decisions for decades to come. Understanding the motivations and the desired experience students seek in their post-secondary education, and how they view education as a life-long pursuit, is critical to the success of new models for education.

Survey Methodology

The survey was conducted online with 1,228 English-speaking Canadians aged 16 to 29 sampled from a representative panel of over 549,000 Canadian residents. The survey was completed from May 26 to June 5, 2014. Since the online survey was not a random, probability-based sample, a margin of error could not be calculated. The margin of error for a survey of 1,228 respondents using a probability sample is +/- 2.8 per cent, 19 times out of 20. Data is weighted according to Canadian census 2011 to ensure regional representation.