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Consequences of Widespread Online Education

Online education has spiked in popularity over the past 10 years. In 2007 almost 20% of college students reported that they attended at least one online course. There has been a 12-14% increase in enrollment each year between 2004 and 2009. This increase in popularity is due to economic benefits of online education along with more widespread ICT (information and communication technology). Assuming the trend continues, and technology continues to evolve to solve some of the issues relating to fidelity of interaction, distance education will, as Bill Gates predicts, surely become an educational

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standard. What are the implications of large-scale distance education schemes? A Microsoft report on the future of computing comments on the impact of ubiquitous computation in schools,

The impact will not just be in terms of how technology changes the nature of learning and teaching

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but in other ways, too. It may change, for example, the ways in which parents can become connected to the education process. It may affect the ways in which school invades home and home invades school for children in a culture that is increasingly permeated by connected computer technology.

These consequences can be classified into four main categories, human-human interaction, implications on the digital divide, implications on research in universities, and implications for self-directed studying.

The Human Touch

If current popularity trends continue, we may be seeing the majority of secondary education occurring on the internet. Currently only 30% of the world’s population is connected to the internet. As this figure rises, more and more students will opt for cheaper, perhaps even higher quality courses offered online (increased public demand will promote further development and better technological schemes). There is speculation that by

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2014 81% of college students will be taking some or all of

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their courses online. We may see a profound decrease in human-human interaction.

The academic experience is about more than the intellectual pursuits of students. If we look at a student who attended elementary, middle and high-school in-person, at a school that runs from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, five days a week 9 months out of the year, this amounts to approximately 30% of a child’s waking hours. These are hours spent in the

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presence of like-minded, similarly aged human beings. We have yet to recreate a virtual environment that recreates all of the ways in which children interact. To deprive a developing mind of frequent interpersonal social interactions could hinder development. Of course, the vast majority of online education is targeted at secondary education. But this may change as secondary “e-education” becomes more standard. The age for virtual education will likely drop.

Currently, the primary user base for online courses are full-time workers. A national study in 2000 found that 64% of students attending online courses identified themselves as “part-time graduate student, full-time worker.” (Simonson 215) However, this is subject to change. As private universities charge more for in-person learning and technology allows for higher fidelity interaction over the internet we may see a drop in enrollment in traditional universities.
A large portion of a college education is the knowledge gained from your peers. As Paul Mitiguy, renowned Stanford Mechanical Engineering professor notes, “the college experience is more than an intellectual one.” Indeed much of the learning process occurs during group projects where students are forced to establish themselves and their ideas. Providing online content may be cheap and easily scalable, but it has drawbacks as well. Humans are more likely to uphold a promise or commitment if he or she tells a person. Online education has seen very high dropout rates. In 2000 a national study showed that as many as 50% of students enrolled in online courses dropped out. (Simonson) Researches introduced various theories that attempt to explain this failure mode.

  1. Interest discrepancies
  2. Lack of confidence in learning without face-to-face interactions
  3. Difficulties with online technical tools
  4. Feeling overwhelmed by too much information available simultaneously.

As we see increased numbers of enrollment for distance learning programs, we need to think about how to enforce students to commit to following through with their initial plan. Without direct peer support, some students may opt out of the system. As Peter Norvig, co-instructor for Stanford’s hugely popular artifical intelligence online class, states “If you can do it whenever you want, you can do it tomorrow.”

There is no replacement to the “human touch.” Until technology enables nearly identical communication schemes between students at a distance vs. students in a classroom, it will be detrimental to the development of the human brain to rely solely on online education as a learning platform.


Bridging the Digital Divide

Currently, there is a significant gap in accessibility to technology from different socioeconomic levels both within the United States and on the multinational level. The digital divide encompasses gender differences, socioeconomic levels, racial differences, age and educational attainment. The digital divide has negative implications for the future of our country. To deprive a large subset of the population of technological know-how is akin to reducing the workforce population. Technology has benefited the United States in that 61% of businesses who use the Internet have realize $163.5 billion as a result of ICTs [Varian]. Online education has the potential to bridge the gap between populations, enabling a large portion of our countries economy to move online.

  1. Online education is cheap. One of the largest barriers to equal technological know-how is the cost of computation. If parents could save money on the cost of private schools they could use more of their financial resources to purchase computers for their children as this computer will likely be their portal to the world’s wealth of knowledge. A computer will be considered a standard tool for all families to own.
  2. Computer purchasing will be incentivized. Given the low-cost of online education, low-income students will be drawn to enroll in distance programs. These programs usually require computers. Therefore, distance education will promote household computer purchasing.
  3. Skills transfer at home. Families with one member taking online classes will be able to learn from the one student. We will see a diffusion of technological expertise at home.
  4. Minorities and females will feel welcome. One of the current problems is that minorities and females sometimes view themselves as inferior with respect to technology. It will be easier for these groups to establish themselves in the field if they can gain a foothold on the material as individuals in a separate environment from the predominantly white male culture.


With the increase in enrollment of online universities there is a possibility that university based

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research will suffer. Currently, professors and students are paired through natural face-to-face interactions after class or during office hours. If we rid ourselves of personal contact with professors we lose the possibility for summer research positions. We may see a transition from joint research/teaching universities to exclusive teaching centers and research institutions.

Creating an Environment for Self-Directed Learning

Perhaps the biggest advantage to remote learning is that it enables individuals to learn at their own speed wherever and whenever they wish. As our world becomes faster paced with increased connectivity, speed of knowledge transfer is perhaps the limiting factor in project completion. In industry, all workers must learn the appropriate material before producing their product. This knowledge transfer occurs online. With consolidated, highly organized and searchable course content, industry workers and students can efficiently acquire skills and knowledge wherever and whenever they wish. A prime example of the organized content on the web is the Navy’s e-learning site. The Navy provides highly organized searchable content for active duty and veteran military personnel, allowing individuals to learn skills in other branches of the military with ease.

Dan Cardinalali, president of Communities in Schools, has a vision for education. He believes that online education provides a framework in which students can learn independently and pursue topics that truly interest them. Cardinali states in a personal interview:

“…self directed learning is the wave of the future. Public education is still not there yet. The teacher provides a framework for the student to learn very specific things. Real education is asking the right sets of questions and knowing ow to access the resources they have to get the answer.”

One of the consequences of online education is that self-directed study will flourish. Benjamin Franklin’s motto, Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions becomes realizable. Self-directed study will allow for nonlinear learning styles and continued education beyond the classroom. For example, an engineer will be able to take an online course in anthropology after his or her four years of a traditional bachelor’s program. Providing course content and communication techniques continue to improve, we will likely see more people of all ages learning more diverse subjects.