Is online education the future of tomorrow? Kiwi Commons has often written about technology’s influence on education, but today Estelle Shumann takes the discussion to the next level. Specifically, she focuses on how online schools continue to improve themselves, and discusses innovative examples like edX and Coursera that are changing the way people think about online education. Estelle is a writer for www.onlineschools.org, where she discusses all things relevant to online learning.
The Progress Online Schools Have Made in Improving Themselves and Education
College education has seen a lot of changes over the past few years. Traditional schools have been raising their tuition and expanding their class sizes to grapple with rising costs, which has made online alternatives even more attractive than ever before. Internet-based college classrooms are nothing new, but developments over even the last five years are making them a much more viable alternative to the traditional college experience.
Much of the change has to do with technology. Originally, online classrooms were basically information portals: students logged in, got information, then completed assignments in a very passive, non-interactive way. The model worked well for busy professionals looking to pick up a class or two in the evenings to keep current or improve discreet skills. It did not do much to rival the four-year educational experience most undergraduates receive when studying on campus, however. The improvements schools are making to programs today are shrinking the gap between online learning and campus life for all students, not just a narrow sector of adult learners.
Some of the most profound changes have come where expense and accessibility are concerned. Earning a degree online almost always costs a fair sum of money. Simply learning—using the Internet to leverage expertise and knowledge—may not, however.
Experimental courses in the collaborative Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology online education program, edX, offer free access to hundreds of lectures and course notes online. A burgeoning program out of Stanford called Coursera promises to involve even more universities in the free online educational movement, making access to top-notch expertise as simple as finding the time to tune in.
“This is the tsunami,” Richard A. DeMillo of Georgia Tech, one of the Coursera participants, told The New York Times. “It’s all so new that everyone’s feeling their way around, but the potential upside for this experiment is so big that it’s hard for me to imagine any large research university that wouldn’t want to be involved.” Coursera founders hope to one day offer the option for credits that can be put towards a degree. This would most likely come at minimal cost, but the quality behind the learning would be undisputable.
Other online programs seem to be taking their cues from these elite offerings, and in many cases are upping the rigor in their own courses as a result. “Online courses now typically require students to post gradable comments about each week’s assignment, which means that online students can’t sit in the back of the class hoping the professor won’t call on them,” a report on online school improvements in U.S. News & World Report said. Many are also leveraging technological tools like browser locks and authentication tracking to crack down on cheating, long a scourge of the online educational world.
While the outlook seems strong, the online learning model still has a few hurdles to overcome. It is not always as easy for programs not affiliated with established universities to provide truly rigorous content, for instance, and vetting professors for expertise is often harder than it sounds. Cranking up the technological twists can make learning more attractive, but the risk is that these shiny new elements will gloss over a lack of substantive content.
“Even a fun and engaging performance assessment can mask the fact that there is no rigor,” Andrew Miller, an educational consultant, wrote in an article for the ASCD Express. “More important than cool tech tools, online courses should attend to three requirements for challenging curriculum: engagement, collaboration, and construction of knowledge.”
There is still some debate today when it comes to the power of online learning to replace or match the value of traditional colleges and universities. While there are still some improvements to be made, the gap between the two shrinks a little bit every day. Online schools are improving, and their progress is, in many cases, worthy of a second look.
Estelle Shumann is a writer and researcher for OnlineSchools.org. Feel free to check out more of her writing!
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