The Future of Education: What is Online Learning’s Influence?

As technology continues to become integrated into every aspect of the human experience, some debate exists over the ever-growing expansion of online schooling opportunities. Today’s guest post by education writer Linda Zabriske touches on this debate and outlines the benefits, particularly for those in developing nations where traditional learning environments are more difficult to come by.

Online universities are making education more democratic and open than ever before as they not only provide resources for graduate level coursework and research for those looking to expand skill sets, but they deliver them to a wider array of students. For those in the US and other developed nations, this means that there are fewer obstacles in the way of achieving one’s goals, but for those in developing nations, online resources can save lives and dramatically improve the quality of life for entire communities. Not only has online education made learning more convenient, it has opened up the academic world to millions.

Still, many are not convinced that the shift is for the better. While information is being broadcast into the furthest reaches of the globe, is it possible that the overall quality or value of education will suffer? Are we losing the intellectualism that has served as the foundation of education for centuries.

A survey of more than 10,700 faculty members at public colleges and universities found that 70% of all faculty members believe the learning outcomes of online courses to be inferior to face-to-face instruction. Even still, online education has continued to grow rapidly, both with wholly online schools and with courses offered at prestigious traditional universities. Many professors judge online education with a different set of criteria. “The access issue trumps everything else,” according to education researcher Jeff Seaman. “The ability to get somebody in a course that they would not ordinarily be able to take, to finish that degree, to pursue that career, to do whatever, is sufficient.”

Online education is viewed as a means for students to garner marketable skills, but there may be a trade-off, particularly for students who might otherwise attend traditional institutions. Students may miss out on the opportunities to dabble in courses and disciplines that they would otherwise never experience. Liberal arts requirements are a staple of most esteemed universities. Courses on, for instance, classical music, Latin, or astronomy are the sort of requirements that are largely stripped away in online learning venues. Granted, none of these are going to offer much in the way of easily marketable job skills, but isn’t there value that employers do not ostensibly measure?

In addition, the experience of learning through social interactions with peers and faculty are greatly diminished when the focus is so specifically tailored to specific job descriptions.

While these are valid concerns, many still suggest the benefits offered by online resources to those in poor undeveloped nations far outweigh any downsides. In Rwanda, for instance, where no more than 5% of the adult population achieved secondary education through 1996, technological innovations have lead to enhanced collaboration and social-learning opportunities for students. Today, there are multiple options for online education scholarships designed strictly for students in developing nations, making education online even less of a burden. Especially in these developing nations, the rewards appear to far outweigh the investment, and Rwanda’s government has even taken notice, funding programs designed to bring laptops to grade-school children and digital learning materials to improve primary school teaching.

While the benefits of online education seem most obvious at the grade-school level in underprivileged areas, research from the US Dept. of Education found that it was college students who showed the greatest improvement when enrolled online, further muddying the debate. Online education is undoubtedly useful, and it’s prevalence worldwide will certainly be an asset to our most troubled regions, but online education clearly misses the mark on some less quantifiable benefits. Traditional campuses offer life experience and cultural diversity. Whether online education will be able to offer similar benefits remains to be seen.

The author is currently a staff writer for www.OnlineGraduatePrograms.com, a detailed resource for finding online graduate programs and other important information regarding the online schooling experience.

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