One of the largest questions surrounding online education is the technological feasibility of providing course content online efficiently, cheaply, and securely. Online education is not a new field. Computer-based learning was first pioneered by Stanford professors in the 1960s who tried using computers to teach math and reading to East Palo Alto elementary school students. In 1961, Ascher Shapiro founded the National Committee for Fluid Mechanics Films, which subsequently offered 39 online films still used in fluid mechanics classes today. Communication and presentation techniques have since improved. The primary technological issues relating to feasibility of online education are communication techniques, assessments, and computer-supported collaborative eduction.

Communication Tools

Are the communication tools currently in use robust enough to provide high-quality course content? Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) are used to create a consistent user interface through which all course content is offered. VLEs can consist of more than simply communication tools. A proper VLE should:

  • Allow for seamless course registration
  • Provide access to course content (e.g. syllabus, handouts)
  • Self-assessment quizzes
  • Provide access to course lectures

VLEs currently exist. The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School is an example of a k-12 institution (boasting 10,000 students for the 2010-2011 year) where a VLE handles all administrative duties and serves course content. Stanford’s CourseWork is a VLE that offers many successful elements of a VLE without providing lectures.  And while there is room for improvement, VLEs do exist to fill the needs of most online courses.

Online educators have a choice between various means of communication to use within a VLE. Primary communication protocols include audio, text, and video. Since students engage multiple senses while learning in the classroom, it is essential that educators use multifaceted communication platforms such as combined video and text to replicate the in-person experience. As Daphne Koller, Stanford Computer Science professor notes, “video content is engaging to students — many of whom grew up on YouTube — and easy for instructors to produce.” Indeed, the video format of lectures almost seems natural now that 24 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Children’s brains are programmed to think in terms of YouTube videos.

Virtual Reality Headset

A team of researchers in the UK are developing a VR headset that mimics sight, smell, sound and even taste.

In addition to video content, virtual reality headsets will likely gain importance in the virtual classroom. Since “Learning is the development of experience into experience” [James], an ideal VLE would incorporate some sort of experiential learning mechanism. 3D virtual reality allows for experiential learning at a distance. This source on Virtual Reality Learning Environments covers the feasibility and benefits of 3D VR in great depth.

And while true 3D virtual reality may be a few years off, there are already a number of VR simulations that teach history, planetary science, cell biology, and more. Sloodle is a free platform that allows for the linking of Second Life environments with educational content so that learning can occur in a virtual world. Technologically speaking, online education is feasible.

Automated Assessment

One of the key benefits of online education is automated assessment. In order for remote learning systems to prove scalable, assessments must be efficient, robust, and automated. Computer-aided assessments are used to grade simple multiple-choice style questions and more complex writing-based responses. It would be impractical to hire hundreds of teaching assistants for a class of tens of thousands. Instead, automated formative assessments can provide real-time feedback for students and summative assessment can provide cumulative data about how well a student understands a subject material.

A Microsoft report on the world of computation in the year 2020 posits that increased technology will allow for better assessment schemes in education.

the teacher can see the intermediate steps, the rough drafts, or even the sequence of keystrokes that led to the final product

Indeed, automated assessments are already in place. The GRE utilizes Automated essay grading, the GMAT and even some high-school writing courses are beginning to use computers to grade essays. Clearly, automated assessments of student work reduces the technical boundaries for online education. With better computer vision and machine learning algorithms we will likely see an increase in computer-based assessment.

With the increase in automated grading, we need to be aware of the possibility for academic dishonesty. Removing the human from the test-taking environment will likely promote cheating. In addition, the software that many schools are using to grade written work (SASGrader) is available online for students to use, enabling them to submit an assignment as a “dry run,” prior to their actual assessment. The proliferation of automated grading raises the ethical question of how to enforce school honor codes.

Computer-Supported Collaborative Education

Perhaps the largest technological hurdle for online education is the issue of online communities. It is essential for students to learn together, in a collaborative environment. Russian Psychologist Lev Vygotsky, championed the belief that knowledge is developed through interacting with one’s surroundings and culture. In order to replicate a culture in which learning occurs, we need to think about online communities where opinions can be voiced and learners can interact.

“The history of development of signs brings us to a much more general law governing the development of behavior. The essence of this law is that in the process of development the child begins to practice with respect to himself the same forms of behavior that others formerly practiced with respect to him”

- Lev Vygotsky 1966

There are a number of  computer-supported collaborative environments already in place. provides an environment for distance learners to come together and discuss concepts. is another online resource that allows students to share knowledge. Whyville is an online virtual community focused on educating children 8-15 years old. This collaborative education model has proven to work and we will likely see higher-fidelity communication between learners from different geographic locations.

The technological barriers to online education are manageable. Communication techniques will improve with more widespread and faster internet access. Automated assessments will continue to improve, enabling large-scale course offerings without the need for many teaching assistants. Computer-supported collaboration techniques already exist and will likely continue to improve as the market for online education increases.