In today’s guest post, Estelle Shumann explores the recent advances made in online education and the steps still needed before online education will be a viable and secure platform.
Online education has taken enormous strides in 2012. If progress continues at this pace, there may soon be a low-cost, high-quality alternative to traditional education widely available to students of every stripe. In fact, free learning may become a possibility for everyone with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and computer or mobile device.
In this article, we will take a look at some of the big milestones reached, as well as the areas that need improvement before learning becomes completely democratized.
Why was 2012 such a groundbreaking year? Firstly, Internet connection speeds have increased, so most people can stream video easily and without interruption. This format allows professors to speak directly to students, even if they are thousands of miles apart.
As studies and experience have shown, there is simply no decent alternative to watching and listening to a real person discuss a topic. Tone of voice, gestures, and demeanor are crucial to the successful transmission of complex ideas. Moreover, recent experiments have demonstrated that classes are more successful when offered in real-time segments. Lectures may be recorded, but are released on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. The past decade has allowed institutions to gain experience with online class environments, making them more efficient and effective.
The University of Phoenix and Khan Academy are no longer the only entities trying out new ideas. There are now a vast number of traditional universities experimenting with online education. Stanford University has been a pioneer in this arena offering online classes for over a decade. MIT started offering open courseware in 2011, which gave anyone interested access to video-lectures, assignments, tests, and quizzes. In the fall of 2012, MIT and Harvard will join forces and offer a combined platform, called EdX.
Also in 2012, a team of Stanford professors came together and went live with Coursera, a collaborative approach to online education that allows any university to join and offer free classes through its website. Thus far, 16 universities have joined, including Stanford University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Michigan. Institutions in France, Canada, and the United Kingdom have also joined what is now an international effort. These universities are adding their prestige and pull to Coursera and online education in general.
Despite the advances in online education, there remain some large problems to solve before it will become universally useful to consumers. One major issue involves certification and assessments. Many classes on Coursera, for example, offer certificates signed by professors, but the value of these remains dubious.
The reputation of these certificates is hampered by the possibility of hacking and cheating. It would be impossible for these universities to monitor individual students and ensure fairness. Until there is a secure way to know that students have completed their own work without external help, online classes will not mean very much to prospective employers.
Also problematic is the limitation of single-course offerings. In order to prepare for a profession in the real world, students need to earn some type of certification or degree, which requires a prescribed set of completed classes. Thus, students may still need to attend traditional university programs if they want to significantly improve their earning potential.
Online classes fail to meet the goal of democratizing the education system, but they are progressing rapidly.
Writing for the education resource OnlineSchools.org, Estelle is familiar with the benefits and drawbacks of both online and traditional schools. Estell’s article builds on a December 2011 post from Bill Mullins’ Weblog, which suggests that online education resources like Khan Academy are proof that the content of online course offerings remains more important than the method of delivery.