This is the typical scenario in America today:
A high school student graduates at the age of 18 and matriculates at a Liberal Arts College or University the following fall semester. After four years (or more), the student has a degree in a subject matter that he or she may or may not use, plus thousands of dollars in student loans.
In a less common scenario, a high school graduate begins school at a traditional university but grows weary of the money and time spent on subjects that he or she is not interested in. Fed up with the current system, they drop out, join a startup company, and wrestle their way to the top of the food chain by experimenting with new and fresh ideas for education that aren't quite so labor and dollar intensive.
So is this a trend that is destined to fade away, or is online learning on its way to taking over the traditional academia?
The advantages to online learning
Online education is growing in popularity as the Internet continues to expand and change the way we interact with the world. The majority of people have a high-speed Internet connection, access to a computer and/or laptop, plus a basic understanding of social media. So what are the advantages to distance learning?
- It is less expensive for both the institution and the student.
- It allows students to gain "expert" advice from people all over the globe, without having to pay to travel.
- Students can get the same attention from a professor and classmates through email, video chat, and online webinar software that allows for conferences and group discussion.
- Textbooks are available in e-format, saving students money and sparing the Earth more resources.
- Online education requires a level of initiative and self-motivation that translates well into the business world.
- The curriculum can be tailored to the individual, providing opportunities for learning by "doing".
- Web study tools are increasingly available to help students learn concepts, study with each other, and even provide opportunities to give back (by designing their own online study guide or study app).
- The institution spends more time with curriculum development, rather than employing custodial staff, buying equipment, and forking over large amounts of money to keep their buildings up to date.
Do online students perform as well?
The U.S Department of Education conducted a study that showed a statistically significant increase in the success rate of online students versus traditional students.
"But what about the human interaction?"
This is one of the biggest arguments against online learning. The truth is that online learning facilitates interaction with more people across the globe than in a tiny classroom. With more financial resources available students can take the opportunity to travel abroad or visit exotic locales, all while staying connected to the classroom.
Technology has given us the ability to connect more, not less. Many online programs have video conferencing, allowing the students and teacher to interact with each other. Online study groups are popping up everywhere. Students can reach out to people in other universities to collaborate and learn together. Online learning has not turned education into a personal experience. It is turning education into a global community experience.
Obstacles to the online learning trend
It is only a matter of years before the online learning trend finds a way around the obstacles that are currently keeping it from overtaking the traditional university altogether.
Taxpayers play a big role in traditional education. Until there is a way for the government to regulate and integrate with online learning, the local classroom will continue to augment by technology, not taken over by it.
Ivy League Universities hold a lot of weight in the political world. It will take a slow shift in the culture's way of thinking (not to mention a new way to analyze the probability of success in students) before the typical degree from Harvard will have to compete with online institutions.
In college, sports are big. They are where a lot of the money is. Online learning institutions will have to find ways to continue this foundational part of academic culture because sports aren't leaving the national arena ever.
Right now, institutions provide a lot of people with jobs. From the custodial staff to cafeteria workers, dorm advisors, teachers, professors, and Boards of Education, online learning is much more streamlined and simple. While it provides financial relief to students (who don't pay as much), it also puts a lot of people out of a job.
The Minerva Project
In the first of its kind, the Minerva Project has been gaining press and notoriety as the first American Elite online University. Young startups have put together a team of expert professors to develop a curriculum and online learning experience that rivals the Ivy League.
For less than $20,000 a year, Minerva expects to educate its students with its top rate technology and professors. The rigorous online curriculum will not be easy, targeting the best and the brightest that are shut out of traditional universities because of cost.
Each year, the students will be invited to live in a different country, experiencing the best the world has to offer in culture, language, and experience. The project was started by Ben Nelson, an ex-CEO from the Silicon Valley. He has been given $25 million dollars to build a university from scratch.
Information is everywhere
We live in the information age. No longer do people need access to an elite library or classroom to gather information. It is everywhere. You can read, research, experiment, and learn right from your bed or table with only a laptop. This widespread access to knowledge will drive the traditional academic world to reassess what is working and what isn't.