Online Learning: Value, Viability, and Cultural Impact
A Few Words From The Author
We are living in the gilded age of learning. This is something that we take for granted constantly; gone are the days of barroom arguments on who won the American League MVP award in 1995, the Academy Award for best picture in 2008, or whether French Fries were actually invented in France (they were not). We have supercomputers in our pockets that possess the entirety of human knowledge and can access it in microseconds with a few taps of the finger or a “Hey Siri”. The proliferation of the information superhighway has ushered in a new culture of teaching and learning. Do you want to learn how to poach an egg? Skin a buck? Run a regression analysis? Not only can you find articles, videos, step-by-step instruction pages, and blogs relating to anything you could possibly think to want to learn, but information technology has come so far that you do not even need to finish typing what you want to learn into Google before predictive search AI can finish your thought for you. With all of this information so readily available, why is it that there has been a historically pessimistic view of accredited degrees, certifications, and continued professional education being delivered via the internet? Throughout this paper, I will be outlining the value of an online education when compared apples-to-apples with a Brick and Mortar-earned degree, the viability of online learning as we progress further into the 21st century, and the cultural impact and perception of online learning. Through pragmatic data analysis, objective explanation of both sides of the issue, and my experience as a student who has spent years at a Four-Year Institution of Higher Learning, living on campus, joining Student Government and Greek Life, and participating in the traditional “college experience”, as well as years working full-time while taking courses here at Arizona
State via distance education. While I align myself firmly with the school of thought that distance education is the future of learning, I will do my best as a researcher to analyze the data for statistical significance and see beyond the rhetoric of both sides of the issue.
Distance Learning: A Look Back
At the beginning of the 20th Century, much like the spread of the internet that we saw 100 years later, a new communication network was emerging: the modern postal system. Colleges in the early 1900’s saw the utility of such a service straightaway and began to spread their education far beyond the reach of a traditional lecture hall or classroom by distributing courses through the postal system so that anyone with a mailing address could enroll in college courses. These correspondence courses enabled people who would otherwise never be able to attain higher education the ability to do so, as esteemed uw Professor Fredrick Jackson Turner said, “the machinery of distance learning would carry irrigating streams of education into the arid regions of the country”. Not long after its introduction, postal courses had four times as many enrollees as every University in the Nation combined. Broader access was not the only benefit that its early proponents voiced, also maintaining that tests and assignments could be specifically tailored to each student and allowed for an “intimate tutorial relationship” with the professors in favor of the crammed-full classrooms of typical American colleges. Nearly one-hundred years later, we are seeing many of those claims articulated anew in support of Online Learning. The proliferation of online learning has made it possible for those who cannot attend college for any number of reasons a chance to better themselves and their futures. As William Bennet, Former United States Education Secretary stated, there is an Athens-like Renaissance in the making in the form of online learning. Now, the long-engrained barriers that kept many from achieving higher education have been eliminated due to the ability for courses to be taken online. In 2002, the number of students that took at least one online course from an accredited university was 1.6 million - that number in 2016 was over 6 million. As of 2018, there are 28,249 online degree and certificate programs available that are accredited by agencies recognized by the United States Department of Education.
Online Education ’s Relevance in 2018: Culturally and Economically
With the ability to access the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips has come an inherent distrust of what we hear in person. Years ago, prior to the advent of the smartphone, skepticism to a statement made by another was met with offense. Now, it is a foregone conclusion that any spewing of statistics or facts will be met with a quick internet-search to corroborate. We trust the internet more than we trust each other, and for good reason. In like fashion, my years of college experience have taught me that even our Professors may skew the facts and the data in their favor, not to mention in many courses where there is little useful data or the course is reliant on rhetoric and conjecture rather than pragmatism. The interesting thing about our trust in the internet over our fellow humans is that it does not carry over when talking about Higher-Education. As I am sure many of you have, I have often faced recourse, skepticism, and even admonishment when I have informed other that I take online courses. While the culture is shifting, many people, professors included, ascertain that online education is not “real school”, that it could never take the place of an in-class education, or that its proliferation will lead to a gap between so-called elite-schools who use their professors and clout to take away from smaller or less-recognized universities ability to keep their classes full.
My first issue with the idea that online education is not as valuable as an in-class education comes from my experience in both environments. In my honors political theory course that I took in-class at the University of Houston, there were over 50 students in a lecture hall.
This course was unique in that no lectures were given in class, but rather all of the readings and research was to be conducted prior to the class so that the lecture time could be spent engaging in debate, discussion, and deconstruction through conversation regarding what we were learning. I loved the class because I am an outgoing, boisterous, and charismatic person who enjoys being the center of attention and has never struggled with public speaking. However, of those fifty students, I shared those traits with 8-10 of them. Shyness, disdain for public speaking, self-doubt or fear of being made to look silly, resulted in the majority of the class only speaking up when motioned to do so by the instructor. On the contrary, when taking the online courses that I have here at ASU, every single student has the time to dedicate to articulating their own opinions at their own pace without the fear of speaking to a room full of strangers or being too shy to speak up. By allowing students to communicate online, we are allowing discourse and debate to occur amongst all students, not just those who are willing to speak up in class. This assessment pairs nicely with the fact that online education allows those who could otherwise never attend college in-class to do so. Whether it be that they are raising a family, working full-time, or fighting for our Country overseas, online education has allowed for them to continue to learn while balancing other aspects of their life. We are in an age of instant gratification and overstimulation.