Why is Remote Education Significant?


“our approach to education has remained largely unchanged since the Renaissance: From middle school through college, most teaching is done by an instructor lecturing to a room full of students, only some of them paying attention. ”

- Daphne Koller, Stanford Computer Science Professor as quoted in the New York Times

Remote education enables virtually everyone with an internet connection to access some of the best course content in the world. The U.S. ranks 55th worldwide in quality of elementary math and science. Education is a worthy investment, yet the question remains how to invest intelligently? Online “E-learning” can provide high-quality course content to a large number of people at very low incremental cost. If remote education were as effective as the best on-campus education in the world and was available to the world, it could improve the quality of education worldwide.

Because remote education is economically scalable, it can serve many useful tasks, such as perpetuating education worldwide, addressing unemployment, customizing education and consolidating most of the educational resources in the world in websites.

Economic Scalability

One of the biggest advantages of remote education is its economic scalability. The costs of remote learning consist of developing e-materials, teaching and assessing students, access to the website and student enrollment. These costs combined are much less than what an on-campus education costs a student. With correct allocation of resources such as computers, appropriate government aid for computer centers and organizations such as University of the People, it is possible to provide very affordable education to all developed countries and most third world countries. With remote education, it is possible to increase the percentage of educated people in the world by a considerable amount.


The costs of remote education, as enumerated by Greville Rumble in The Costs and Costing of Networked Learning consist of:

Developing e-materials

Developing e-materials consists of one or more professors recording lectures in video, preparing quizzes, exams and projects. Since the professors who teach online classes as a part of a remote education startup also teach the same class at Stanford, they use the same material they use for their on-campus class, greatly reducing the time and monetary costs of creating new material for the online class.

Teaching (and assessing) students online

This requires an online infrastructure to be implemented by software developers. This is a one-time cost and is much less than teaching in a classroom, where space, maintenance of space and transportation are recurring costs. See more about automated assessments in the technological challenges page.

Accessing the web site

The students would need to have a computer with reasonably fast technical specifications and relatively fast internet. Currently, 78.1% of the US population uses the internet, whereas only 27.1% of the world’s population uses the internet. For most of the internet users, remote education will cost nothing. For those with no computers or internet, an initial investment of internet or a computer is necessary. However, these costs can be drastically reduced by computer centers in every neighborhood that anyone can visit to take online classes. The costs of these computer centers can be greatly alleviated by government aid or charity acts, such as the Cornell Computer Reuse Association, which delivers used and no longer needed computers to third world countries. Cornell, distributed 500 used computers to outdates schools in Ghana, Rwanda and Afghanistan. In 2009, 70 million functional computers were stored and not being used in the United States. If all these computers were successfully allocated to computer centers in Haiti, for example, there would be 8 computers per person in Haiti (Haiti’s population is 9 million). With successful allocation of unused recourses such as stored computers, costs of computers and Internet connectivity can be trivialized.

Administering students online

Administration costs consists of paying teaching assistants and costs of an online infrastructure that records all of students’ homework, essays, reading, class attendance and projects. To improve the interactivity of the website, it would be ideal for teaching assistants or professors to answer students’ questions online.  The payroll of teaching assistants would be much less for online education than in colleges for the following two reasons:

  1. There will be a higher supply of teaching assistants to the class because the number of students in an online class is much greater than those in a college. The Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig in Fall of 2011 at Stanford has at most several hundred students, whereas the, which has the same course content, has over 100,000 students enrolled. Since there will be more students that would be competing for a teaching assistant position, they would be willing to work for less. In simple economic terms, when the supply of workers increases and demand remains the same (demand is the number of teaching assistants to be hired), the wage will decrease. This phenomena is depicted in the graph below where “Price” is equivalent to wage.

    Shift in Supply's Effect on Wages

    Shift in Supply's Effect on Wages. Image taken from Top Grade Learning The supply and demand theory based off of Besanko& Braeutigam (2005) p.33.

  2. Teaching assistants in an online learning classes do not have to physically come to class. They only have to hold online Q/A sessions and grade certain parts of homework that is cannot be auto-graded by computers. Since all homework will be digitally recorded, parts of students’ homework can be automatically graded by computers, similar to how GRE scoring works. In GRE, computers do most the grading. Other work that teaching assistants in colleges do (keeping track of students’ scores, taking attendance) can be done by computers too, because all of the course content is digital. Thus, the number of hours a teaching assistant has to work is much less. This will allow an online learning company or organization to spend less on teaching assistants with hourly wages, because the company will have to pay for less hours.

Scalability and Global Opportunities

Currently, one of the best models for an online university education that will cost nothing to the students is University of People (UoP), a nonprofit academic institution sponsored by the United Nations. This online university is unique in that it does not charge for courses, course material such as books or enrollment. The University of the People operates as a nonprofit organization. The founder and CEO of UoP concisely explains how UoP manages to not charge tuition to students by using OpenCourseWare’s source code and charging minimal fees for exams and applications:

UoP is the perfect example of how an online university can greatly reduce costs of education in third world countries. A New York Time article explains how a third world country can cheaply educate many students via computer centers to allow students to take UoP classes. UoP opened three new computer centers in earthquake-struck Haiti, where students who know English can take their classes for free. When compared to the costs of on-campus education, where students have to pay for dining, board, tuition (which covers courses, facilities, financial aid for other students, city perks and alumni benefits), UoP’s online education is drastically easier to maintain with only the physical cost of the computer centers, each of which costs as much as the maintenance of a computer cluster in one of Stanford’s dorms or a classroom with a project setup.

Since online education can be much cheaper than traditional on-campus education, it can allow for a much higher population of the world to be educated. With small government funding for computer centers, for example, the only cost for a bachelor’s education can be merely an application fee and small fees for exams to pass classes.

Addressing Unemployment

As remote education becomes more effective, employers will have more and more incentive to hire those who educate themselves with remote education. Thus, the unemployed could use remote education to become employable by taking advanced classes in their subject area or introductory classes in new fields. Currently, the unemployment rate in the US is 9.1%, which amounts to approximately 28 million people. The unemployment rate for US citizens with Bachelor’s degrees is only 4.4 percent. For certain careers that require a Bachelor’s degree (e.g. dentistry, meteorology, genetics or astronomy), unemployment rates are near 0%.  If remote education can provide a prestigious alternative to a Bachelor’s Degree, then most people can afford to educate themselves online in a lucrative field. Thus, the unemployed can learn practical skills through online education and become employed quickly.

Unemployment can also be addressed via remote education in practical skills, which could get someone employed. In an in-person interview, Peter Norvig states

“You can think long course such as becoming a plumber or an electrician or short course such as a specific thing like baking a cake. Now that’s served pretty well by doing a search and finding a video, but it could be better [via remote learning].”

An unemployed, for example, can learn all the aspects of the plumbing profession through a remote learning course, and be able to find a job in the field. Because remote learning is economically scalable, it is possible to have a future where remote learning is available to all at low or no cost. In such a future, every unemployed person could train themselves to become employed with spending much less money than they would to take an actual physical class. This has the potential of bringing unemployment to unprecedented low percentage.

Customizing Education

The No Child Left Behind Act, recently revised by the Obama administration, states its goal as “to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind.” Remote education is perfectly suitable for being an integral part of this reform, because it allows students to infinitely customize their education.

In his interview, Peter Norvig states that a students can “adjust” their education “infinitely.” If a student does not understand a topic in an online lecture, he/she has the option to watch the part the online lecture that covers the topic as many times as necessary, whereas a student can watch an on-campus lecture only once in person. Norvig also states that many students are scared to speak up in class if they don’t understand a topic in class. Even in a one-on-one tutoring session, a student can ask the tutor to repeat an explanation if a topic isn’t clear. However, if the student still does not understand the topic after three of four explanations, he/she will feel pressured to say that the topic is understood. Online education similarly addresses this problem by allowing the student to watch the content again and again.

Analogous to students who learn some topics slower or require repetitions, a gifted student who learns faster than others can advance in an online class much faster than in an on-campus class. If a student can understand lectures and do all the homework faster, he/she can watch future lecture and do future homework projects, eventually finishing the class early. If the same student were taking the on-campus class, he/she would have to wait until the next lecture or the next homework assignment to advance in the class.

Consolidation of Knowledge

Remote knowledge can be used to review previously learned topics. For example, if a Stanford student working at Google needs to review an artificial intelligence algorithm he learned many years ago in class, he/she would either need to search the topic online and try to remember it, or find his/her lecture notes among many and reread them. However, a remote learning class graduate could easily go back to the website and watch the lecture again. Thus, a remote learning class can serve as a forever accessible knowledge database for any user, like a lecture, homework and project based encyclopedia.

Average Cost of a Class

According to USNews, average yearly cost of a four-year nonprofit college is $35,000. This cost includes dining and board costs but all such side-costs are investments to allow a student to take classes at a college. If a student takes 10 to 15 classes in an academic year, the cost of a single class is thus at least $2000.

Affordability of Remote Education

Because it is possible to make remote education as cheap as $50 dollars (University of the People) or even free (, MIT OCW), every person who has received prior education in an on-campus institution can use remote education as an online knowledge service to review prior knowledge at an affordable cost. For example, if the Stanford student working at Google wanted to review artificial intelligence concepts, all he would have to do would be to watch the short Youtube lectures posted online for free.