Online learning has seen a surge of activity over the past year. It is tempting to attribute all of this to the pandemic, and indeed this is no small factor. But the truth is that before 2020, the sector was seeing widespread interest both from an economic and academic standpoint. Economically, online learning has the potential to revolutionize the cost and accessibility of education at all levels. Academically, there are benefits to students that research is beginning to uncover. Altogether, there is a lot of potential that is yet to be realized. The pandemic may be just the opportunity the world needed to force the issue.
Hype, or reality?
Of course, “Edtech” as a buzzword is surrounded by a lot of hype. Some have argued that the purported benefits will never materialize. For example, the cost effectiveness of online learning is often questioned. The truth is that the cost-benefit ratio is not the same for every student, and therefore the cost and benefit of online learning vary depending on the individual. But the fact that we are still in the beginning of the online learning revolution means that there is a lot of room for improvement and development.
The pandemic has increased online learning’s visibility in an unprecedented way. The fact that it is now a part of the global conversation has been a boon for the industry. This is especially true of MOOCs, which have been the most visible aspect of the online learning revolution. In just the past month, MOOCs have been covered by everyone from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal.
Are MOOCs really the future of online learning?
MOOCs are a hot topic now, but they are far from the only form of online learning. Massive open online courses cover a range of topics and are open to anyone. They are designed to be taken by students successively, and then students have the opportunity to share their thoughts with the instructor and other students.
There is a great deal of controversy surrounding MOOCs, and no one is sure how they will fare in the long run. The truth is that they are still too new to have a track record. But one thing is clear: the popularity of MOOCs has contributed to the public’s awareness of online learning. The online learning revolution is here, and it is time to prepare for the future.
An economic win
The most obvious benefit of online learning is its cost effectiveness. An education can be extremely expensive, no matter how you slice it. If you attend a traditional, brick-and-mortar university, the tuition is usually a significant proportion of your income. If you attend a community college, the price is often significantly lower, but you will still have to pay for books, transportation, and living expenses. Either way, paying for college is a significant burden for most students.
Online learning is changing this dynamic. A degree from a major online university can cost thousands of dollars less than one from a traditional university, and it can be a fraction of the cost of a community college. If you are just starting out in life, this can be a huge benefit. Not only will you not have to take out loans, but you can use that money to get yourself situated in the world.
Besides the cost, online learning has another advantage over traditional education: flexibility. If you are a student with a family or a full-time job, you might not have the time to attend a traditional university. Online learning can be a great solution for such students, as it opens up the experience to people who might otherwise be excluded.
Online learning can also provide a solution for people who have been forced to attend a university far from home. For example, one of our students, who had to leave his home in Africa to attend university in the US, was able to enroll in an online course that would not have been available to him if he had been in his home country.
The flexibility of online learning has other advantages. For example, when you take courses online, you can choose your own pace. If you are busy with work or school, you can slow down and take the time you need to complete the course. If you are not feeling motivated or productive, you can take a break and come back when you are ready. You might also choose to take courses in the evening or on weekends, which means you do not have to give up your social life or job.
The flexibility of online learning also works in reverse. If you are a serious student, you can take advantage of the freedom to study 24/7. Theoretically, you could study all day, every day and never have to leave your room. Of course, no one will realistically spend every waking moment studying, but the option is there if you want it.
There’s academic benefits, too
It is important to remember that online learning is not just about the cost and convenience. There are also academic benefits to online learning. These benefits are particularly relevant if you are thinking about taking an online course at a major university.
Online learning allows you to take classes from the best instructors in the world. You no longer have to settle for the instructor in your town; you can have the best instructor possible. If you are a serious student who wants to stand out in the job market, this can be a huge advantage.
Online learning also allows you to take classes from a variety of perspectives. It is not uncommon for a course to include students from around the world. For example, one of our students took an online course about how to write a business plan. The instructor was a professor at Harvard Business School, and the students were from Nigeria, Singapore, and Brazil. This student learned a lot from these students, and it broadened his perspective in a way that would not have been possible at a local university.
Online learning also provides a way for students to learn from each other. Learning from your peers can be much more effective than learning from a traditional professor. For example, one of our online students said learned more from his classmates than he did from the instructor. He explained that when the students were working on a project together, they had a more organic and fluid understanding of the subject matter than he did from the instructor.
Finally, online learning provides a way for students to learn from experts who are not in the field. A student of ours took a course in global health. He chose this course because he is passionate about the topic, but he did not want to go into medicine. He explained that the instructor in this course was an expert in the field from a research perspective. He knew more about the topic than any other person in the world. As a result, he learned a lot from the class and is now considering a career in the field.
The future of online learning
The future of online learning is very bright. The benefits to the student are enormous, and they are especially helpful for students who are just starting out in life. Online learning has the potential to revolutionize the cost, flexibility, and quality of education at all levels. It is unclear how far this revolution will go, but the online learning pandemic has started the process and will undoubtedly accelerate its progress.