Inside the Online Education Gold Rush

By: Andrew Mather

A diorama of what internet-based “classrooms” have been able to accomplish so far – and what they need to do in order to reach the next level of success.

Online education has gathered attention in recent years by promising to revolutionize the world’s access to top-notch schooling. Almost every major university has drawn up plans for it’s own offerings, and advocates have gone as far as to claim that online courses represent the “biggest change in education since the printing press.”

Exuberance over one online education model in particular, the Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC), has poured into Silicon Valley and throughout numerous areas of the education community, spawning an incredible number of endeavors that all profess to create the ideal online classroom of the future.

Yet over ten years after the first modern classes were released on the web, almost everyone would have to agree that online education’s impacts have been short of world-defining.  True, matriculation numbers for MOOCs and online degree programs have often hit the hundreds of thousands and many success stories have emerged, but a closer look at the performance of these classes paints a much more mixed picture.

MOOCs have shockingly low completion rates, and employers by-and-large view students who have pursued higher education online as inferior to those who have achieved it through more traditional methods.  A pessimist could go as far as to interpret these data to mean that these offerings are failing to stimulate students’ intellect and not preparing them for the real world – implying that its exuberant prospectors have struck nothing more than a well-advertised strand of pyrite.

Even if true, that does not necessarily mean all is lost.  Thousands of students have managed to complete online courses and degrees (with countless more extracting at least some value from them), and the fact that legitimate institutions deem online programs worthy of experimentation signals that the programs have captured considerable mind share.

Furthermore, the majority of criticism directed at MOOCs today may point more directly towards the industry’s current players than it does towards the idea and vision itself. Early social networks such as MySpace and Friendster had many failures that were assuredly maligned by their own sets of critics, but ultimately these public shortcomings told little about the success that social networks as a whole would ultimately have (even if they did spell doom for the firms themselves).  The same could very well be true of the attacks on current online education fledglings.

Over the next few months, The Kant Institute will analyze many of the challenges facing online education technologies in order to determine exactly how they can best prepare themselves for the future.  We fall somewhere in the middle of the commentary spectrum in that we do see many of the advantages that these emerging technologies may have, but we think that time and patience will be needed for them to grow into their full potential.

After all, if we do (as at least one advocate has) accept the printing press truly as the most suitable archetype with which to compare the phenomenon we are in the midst of today, we shouldn’t forget the sluggishness of its own emergence.  While many revisionists imagine that Gutenberg’s revolutionary device instantly brought a sweeping revolution to the print industry, a more accurate look reveals that 15th century Europe scarcely even had a language to write in at the time of its debut (let alone works to print or educated readers to consume them)!  Technology and society almost always take time to reconcile with each other – the bigger the innovation, the longer this incubation period can take.

I believe that online education is in its own incubation period right now, gradually figuring out how to fulfill society’s expectations until the two can meet at some point of equilibrium.  It may take many years to figure out exactly where this equilibrium lies. Perhaps, through discussions like these, we can help get a little closer to it.

In coordination with Andrew’s examination of MOOCs and online learning, a podcast series on the subject will be released this October.