Brianna Meiers | Cloud Tweaks
Online education is certainly nothing new to today’s students, though advancements in the field are making available programming more complex—and in many ways more compelling—than ever before. Internet-based university learning began decades ago as a way for older students to continue their education without disrupting their schedules. Schools like the University of Phoenix and Capella University gained fast popularity as ways for busy professionals to finish—or sometimes even start—college degree programs from home, and were mostly designed as online versions of the age old correspondence course. Things have changed substantially since then. Students at all levels and places in life are looking online for education, and academics are responding in record numbers. Many scholars predict that the future of education and learning is likely in the cloud. While the landscape is still shifting and there remain some pitfalls to the online classroom, there is little doubt that the demand and drive are there.
Even just five years ago, the online educational palette was limited. For-profit schools were exploding, which raised questions of accreditation and legitimacy for many. More and more brick-and-mortar schools were offering online “extension” courses, but most of these were put together by professors in their downtime, often without much assistance when it came to technological expertise or web building. Their formats were typically rigid, and most were designed more as an imitation of live courses than an independent instructional model.
“In the early days of online courses, a widespread production model was to provide faculty members with release time and/or stipends in return for developing and delivering their own courses,” an Educause review of online learning said. “Often re-creating the lecture, the resulting courses frequently had an idiosyncratic structure and might—or might not—use good instructional design.”
One of the biggest changes has been the development of separate online “tracks,” in which course material is optimized specifically for the online platform with things like chat capabilities, web streaming, and real-time interaction built in. The cost differential has also seen profound change. Online schooling has almost always been less expensive than attending in person, which has long been a big part of its allure. Today, however, many of the top universities are actually offering world-class online learning experiences for free.
Harvard and MIT were among the first to offer free access to online courses through their integrative edX program. edX began as a means of bringing computer science and engineering education to the masses, but has expanded to include a range of courses in the math, science, and even some humanities sectors. Coursera, a similar program built out of Stanford University’s computer science department, promises the same—and in fall 2012 went live with free courses from at least a dozen schools around the country. Most are offered on an information-only basis, but a growing number are also offering certification or, in some cases, credit.
“While perhaps not yet a revolutionary paradigm-shift, this is an important step in market diversification and outreach by our leading educational institutions,” Sean Decatur, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oberlin College, wrote in The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” column. More students than ever before are able to access top-notch education through these free lectures and materials. Most academics applaud this sort of leveling, and many are looking for ways of bringing more students from around the world into the discussion.
The field is still very much developing, though, particularly where credit and certification are concerned. How to authenticate users and prevent cheating is one concern; how professors should handle massive amounts of grading is another. Some critics also wonder how increased online enrollments will affect traditional tuition-paying students—the bread and butter universities depend on to be able to fund these expansive online opportunities.
For better or worse, more students than ever before are looking online for at least some of their schooling. While there are undoubtedly still things that need to be improved, there is also a lot of good that has been done; with the right nurturing, this good could last well into the future.