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Tuesday
Apr302013

Online Education: The Reality

In an article posted on April 24 in Pandodaily, Franciso Dao laid out a compelling, but also short-sighted argument that technology and education pundits have oversold the potential of online education to the public. He points to the underutilization of existing free educational services like public libraries, and the low completion rates by students participating in online courses as examples of online education’s shortcomings. In particular, he blames the lack of "… a fixed structure and a sense of belonging that come from a student body,” for the low completion rate.

To write off such a democratic and universally appealing service like online education negates the accomplishments made by Sal Khan's Khan Academy, and the efforts of the Open University to increase the quality, and quantity, of its free courses. Moreover, online education is neither standardized nor unified, it is a patchwork of endeavours to offer education to people marginalized by an inability to find or integrate traditional education into their lives. In addition, most traditional primary and high schools are not preparing graduates to take advantage of online training. Changing established educational norms are hard; teachers tend to implement educational methods and practices that mirror their own experience as students. For modern educators, obtaining a degree through a virtual institution may appear more fantasy than reality.

We are at the start of an educational revolution. Only recently have media providers like TEDed and iTunes U brought online education to mainstream consumers. Therefore, it will take one or two generations before students, educators, and institutions, are ready to embrace online education, just as it will take software designers and online service providers time to cater and adapt to the educational needs of future students.

Nonetheless, while some students are unable or unwilling to commit themselves to online learning, philanthropists like Bill Gates and prestigious institutions like  Standford and Carnegie Mellon are dedicating a large amount of resources in an effort to make  universal online higher education a success.

The success of the online retail industry and the popularity of social networks show that people are willing to give up real-world interactions if in return they get improved convenience and expedience; Evidenced by Facebook's 618 daily active users and Amazons 100,000,000 active customer accounts. I can see a future when schools offer online students an experience that combines the supportive community of an online social network with the simplicity and instant gratification of online shopping. It is not a matter of innovation, but rather an issue of adaptation.

Libraries are a great multifunctional resource for communities, but they are not formal learning institutions, and even the most motivated self-learner would find it hard to duplicate an academic curriculum using nothing but reference materials.  Moreover, an article from the Huffington Post in 2011, reports that Canadian libraries are experiencing a renaissance. Revitalization spurred by the libraries willingness to lend out various digital media and free access to other technological services.  In addition, it is natural to assume that similar technological changes in traditional schools will entice students to become motivated online learners and pave the way for a greater acceptance of online learning.

Like any other emerging industry, it will take time to develop and agree on a universal set of standards, and years of research and work to create a product that offers the majority of students a good alternative to a traditional education, but it will never be a one size fits all solution.

Eventually, economics will decide the fate of online learning. People naturally seek out knowledge, but they also pursue a better standard of living, increased wages, consumer goods, and political freedoms. Access to education can offer people all of these benefits and many more, and it does not matter if people get this education in an ivory covered building or through a laptop, just as long as they get it.

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