Forthcoming Report!

Whatever happened to online learning?
Lessons from Country Case Studies
Preview of Forthcoming OBHE Report



Online HE Blogpost!

News Analysis Focus for 2017 – Online HE in 30 Countries
Published on our parent company Tribal Group's blog

Our 2017 IBC Report!

International Branch Campuses: Success Factors of Mature IBCs 2017
The OBHE & C-BERT of SUNY, Albany & Pennsylvania State University                 
Headline Findings


Whatever happened to online learning?
Lessons from Country Case Studies

Preview of Our Forthcoming Report


The Observatory’s remit is a big one- the multitude of transnational higher education models, the plethora of commercial players active in the sector, and the complexities of online learning. This “borderless” higher education is dynamic, exciting and interrelated but can become unwieldy. Moreover, OBHE attempts to cover developments worldwide.

In 2017, we paid particular attention to online learning and blended learning. We conducted a series of country case studies- twelve of which are already available on our site- which will culminate in a summary report this spring.

Definition and Methodology

Our definition of online learning is broad, encompassing fully online degree programmes as well as blended and hybrid models; and online delivery as a component of conventional campus courses. We are interested in online learning offered by mainstream universities and colleges, but also the activities of other kinds of providers. Online learning is the latest form of distance and open learning, which has a long history in many parts of the world.

In many countries, data about online higher education is patchy, intelligence about activity fragmented, and many trends nascent, but that is precisely why cross-country comparisons and Observatory analysis is needed. Observatory staff and associates sift available government and other data, and scan reports and media coverage.

So far we’ve published case studies on: China, Egypt, England, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, Sub-Saharan Africa, United Arab Emirates, and the United State of America

Additional country case studies will be included in the final report.

Preview of Findings

Twenty year on from the dotcom boom and bust, when online learning went from disruptive darling to over-hyped has-been, what is the sum total of this innovation today? The promise that new technology could dramatically widen access to higher education, enhance the student experience and lower costs was bold but reality proved more complicated.

Among the countries looked at so far, five categories emerge:

  • Distance, Not Online. Large distance learning sector with little or no use of online learning beyond some MOOC enthusiasm (e.g. Egypt, India)
  • Marginal. Strong growth in campus enrolment, with some online elements. Most distance learning is blended with in-person study centres (e.g. Saudi Arabia, UAE)
  • Blurred Growth. A poorly defined combination of informal, distance and online learning enrolment continues to out-perform the overall market (e.g. Mexico, Spain)
  • Clear Growth. A clear online distance learning sector continues to out-perform the overall market (e.g. United States)
  • Peaked/Decline. Online enrolment growth has been at the expense of the national distance university. Online enrolment is peaking or is in decline (e.g. England, South Korea)

What is common to all the countries considered so far is that online distance learning has yet to command more than 15% market share, implementation of online elements as part of a face-to-face experience is uneven, multifarious and hard to track within and between institutions, and online learning has little to no association with cost or price reduction. Moreover, outcomes data for online students is rarely reported at institutional or national level, but what data there is tends to position online learning outcomes as below average. The value proposition of online degrees quickly defaults to little more than flexibility and convenience.

But while it is fair to say that the big promises of online learning have generally speaking not come to fruition, the access, quality and cost challenges of higher education globally have not gone away. At this stage in our work, OBHE forecasts three scenarios:

Scenario 1: Online as Supplement. On this scenario, the future of online learning looks like the past. The technology adds useful functionality but supplements rather than transforms the conventional classroom. A relatively small minority of students study fully online, driven by pragmatism rather than a conviction that the experience is inherently superior.

Scenario 2: Online as Revolution (finally). Looking back, the mistake made by early advocates of online learning was timing not substance. First generation online was too limited but the capabilities of today and tomorrow- high performance two-way video, adaptive learning and simulations- transcend the shortcomings of routine in-person learning.

Scenario 3: Online Is Not the Point. The line between technology and pedagogy is blurred. Delivery mode can be a vehicle for pedagogy and shape it, but it is sound, purposeful pedagogy that fosters learning, not delivery mode alone. Many studies have concluded that a combination of in-person and online learning produces the best results, with pedagogy leading the way.

To gain access to our summary report and articles, which are exclusive to OBHE subscribers become a member or contact for more details.


Printable Flyer

16 April 2018

From Scarcity to Abundance:
Three innovative student outcomes initiatives in the United States

Richard Garrett, Director, OBHE

When it comes to questions about student outcomes, a big problem is often not enough data. Information might be available at a high-level, making clear that graduates tend to out-earn non-graduates, for example, but institution and subject-specific data is much less common. Definition disagreements, siloed datasets, big holes in the evidence, and privacy concerns have proven formidable barriers to generating the kind of information higher education critics think consumers should be armed with before deciding what and where to study.

One major US university system recently announced something of a breakthrough.

Full article available for members.


6 April 2018

Online and distance learning in higher education in Scotland

Carolyn Walker, OBHE Associate;
Consultant in International HE; Former Academic Director at INTO

For some time, a number of Scottish universities have been in the business of distance learning both nationally and internationally. Several have established a global presence through transnational education, and most are keen to increase their global reach, particularly via flexible approaches to course delivery. Is Scottish online and distance learning in higher education on an upward trend?

Full article available for members.


28 February 2018

The Search for Student Outcomes: 
The dawn of university rankings in the MENA region

Richard Garrett, Director, OBHE
Christopher Hill, Associate Professor, British University of Dubai

The Observatory’s 2018 theme is student outcomes, defined broadly. Our hypothesis is that robust, rounded outcomes data is very much the exception in higher education around the world, and that this absence is problematic at a time of higher education expansion, cost pressures and government scrutiny. This post looks at university rankings as a possible source of such outcomes data, using the MENA region as an example.

The Times Higher Education MENA Universities Summit will kick off in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on March 18, supported by the Saudi Ministry of Education. This is a sign of growing interest in the trajectory of higher education in the Middle East, a region- positioned in the promotional video for the summit- as blessed with immense natural wealth and striving to invest in human capital.

Full article available for members.



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OBHE Publications

Our research agenda focuses on topics that have current and future relevance to transnational higher education, and our reports provide in-depth analysis of the latest developments, trends and challenges in borderless higher education. By synthesising the latest international developments, the research reports assess their wider implications for higher education leaders and policy makers.

The Observatory publishes original in-house research reports on themes that challenge the 'traditional' boundaries of higher education, and particularly those expected to impact the core business of universities and colleges.

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Forthcoming Events


23-26 April 2018:  Scholars at Risk Global Congress, Berlin, GERMANY

27 April 2018:  ACA-IKY Seminar, 'Internationalisation and academic freedom', Athens, GREECE

2-4 May 2018:  Going Global, 'Redesigning Excellence: Higher Education for Global Societal Impact', Kuala Lumpur, MALAYSIA

9 May 2018:  Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), the UAE Embassy in London, and the Department for International Trade, 'Skilled@wellbeing' - An informative networking event, that will showcase education opportunities in Dubai for Whole of Life Education, London, ENGLAND  --- RSVP to:  and For more information please contact

27 May - 1 June 2018:  NAFSA Annual Conference & Expo, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

11 June 2018:  ACA European Policy Seminar, 'The impact of internationalisation - putting together the puzzle', Brussels, BELGIUM

11-12 June 2018:  Tribal Empower Conference 2018, Birmingham, UK

20-22 June 2018:  HEAd'18 - 4th International Conference on Higher Education Advances, Valencia, SPAIN

25-28 June 2018:  Canada International Conference on Education (CICE), Mississauga, CANADA

15-18 July 2018:  World Congress on Education, Dublin, IRELAND

16-29 August 2018:  40th Annual EAIR Forum 2018, Budapest, HUNGARY

11-14 September 2018: EAIE 2018 Annual Conference, Geneva, SWITZERLAND

27-29 September 2018:  NACAC 74th National Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

9-12 October 2018:  AIEC 2018, Sydney, AUSTRALIA    

4-5 November 2018:  Save the date - OBHE Global Forum in partnership with KHDA, Dubai, UAE

7-10 November 2018:  CIEE Annual Conference, Barcelona, SPAIN

9 November 2018:  ACA Seminar, 'Mobility-migration nexus: policies, practicies, discourses and evidence', Brussels, BELGIUM

13-15 November 2018:  IAU 2018 International Conference, Kuala Lumpur, MALAYSIA


20-23 January 2019:  AIEA Annual Conference, 'What's next - Possibilities and probabilities in the future of international higher education, San Francisco, CA, USA

February 2019:  IIE Summit, 'The Future of International Education', New York, NY, USA

3-7 November 2019:  28th International Council for Open and Distance Learning (ICDE) World Conference on Online Learning, 'Transforming Lives and Societies', Dublin, IRELAND

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